Future Tense

Future Tense Newsletter: Your Antidote to Social Distancing

A man on a subway platform wearing a mask looks at his phone.
A man waits for a subway at Times Square on March 13. Johannes Eisele/Getty Images

Hi Future Tensers,

As COVID-19 continues to spread, coronavirus memes have gone, erm, viral. My favorite is Wash Your Lyrics, a rare case of a meme developed by a 17-year-old that also functions as an effective public health initiative. The meme wars are a battle between the dark (panic, misinformation, and conspiracy theories) versus the light (hand washing memes and the World Health Organization’s very earnest TikTok account). At a time when social distancing has been prescribed as the best way to mitigate the spread of the virus, online communication is a crucial resource for information…and connection. As an antidote to social distancing, Slate has curated a selection of pieces that explore how the virus is impacting our lives, the Coronavirus Diaries. (This Future Tense Coronavirus Diary, for instance, looks at the life of a moderator on Reddit’s biggest sub for coronavirus news.)

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Haley Swenson’s story “The Coronavirus Is a Reminder That Elder-Care Workers Deserve Much Better” is a warning that our already-strained care economy cannot withstand a pandemic. So far, more than one-fifth of deaths from COVID-19 have been people over the age of 80, who are largely in the care of underpaid, highly strained care workers. Swenson says it’s a system in need of a rapid overhaul: “$11 an hour is not the kind of investment it takes to develop a workforce that can protect the nation from a public health crisis. With low pay, demanding hours, and usually, no benefits, it’s easy to see why turnover for home health aides even outside a public health crisis is around 50 percent.”

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Best of Future Tense, Coronavirus Edition 

Wish We’d Published This
No Cell Signal, No Wi-Fi, No Problem. Growing Up Inside America’s ‘Quiet Zone’,” by Dan Levin, New York Times

Three Questions for a Smart Person
Charles Kenny is a senior fellow and the director of technology and development at the Center for Global Development and the author most recently of Close the Pentagon: Rethinking National Security for a Positive-Sum World. Future Tense editorial director Andrés Martinez spoke with him about the coronavirus and global development.

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Andrés: This grim week seems like a good time to check in with one of global development’s foremost optimists, author of Getting Better and The Upside of Down. Charles, is the coronavirus pandemic and our global response to it making you reassess your belief that things have been getting better for most of humanity in ways we don’t fully appreciate?

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Charles: In terms of health, and up until now, things are still getting better worldwide. But COVID-19 certainly demonstrates that our progress could be slowed or reversed if we don’t act together. Like climate or financial crises, pandemics aren’t stopped by borders. Increasingly, our well-being as individuals depends on global collaboration around things like fostering research and exchange, lowering emissions, regulating banks—and monitoring and responding to disease outbreaks.

I admit U.S. federal policymaking has depressed me—rather than leading a global response, trying to hide behind harmful travel bans. But many state and local governments in the U.S. as well as governments in other countries and international institutions like the World Health Organization have done better. Thank goodness Washington isn’t quite so central to global well-being as it used to be I guess one lesson for the future is to make sure we have more “institutional redundancy” when it comes to global challenges—so if Washington is (still) dysfunctional or international regulatory structures around health or banking fall apart, we’ve got some form of “backup institution” to mitigate the damage.

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Killer plagues, cataclysmic wars, devastating natural disasters—throughout history, our societies have learned to be more resilient as a result of such crises (improving public health systems, for starters). It’s early days, but is there one behavioral or technological innovation you’d like to see us (the collective global “us”) adapt as a result of this pandemic—something that decades we’d look back and say “yeah, we do this because of the 2020 coronavirus”?

One thing would be around vaccine development and its implications. Right now there are a bunch of different research teams worldwide working on a vaccine. Hopefully some are only weeks away from starting human trials, but then you have to develop mass-manufacturing capability really rapidly. A lot of people right now are trying to figure out how we go from detecting a new disease to backing multiple research efforts while simultaneously thinking about global manufacture and delivery in a few months rather than, say, 18 months. We know the current global system for supporting pharmaceutical development can’t do that, but that’s just one example: We’re facing real problem developing new antibiotics, too. I hope we look back and say COVID-19 was the moment the planet woke up and realized we needed better global mechanisms to support rapid development, testing, production, worldwide distribution and delivery of essential medicines to fight infection.

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Conversely, what’s your biggest worry when you think of legacies this pandemic might leave behind, viewed from the perspective of global development?

Infectious diseases have always been associated with fear of the “other.” Show people pictures of victims of an infection, and they become less friendly to people they don’t know. You’ve seen politicians who don’t like foreigners suggest COVID-19 is a reason to build walls. Globalization over the past century has been facilitated by the huge decline of communicable diseases—they used to kill most people, now they kill about 1 in 5. I don’t think COVID-19 will reverse that progress, but if it sparks a nativist reaction nonetheless, that will slow down global exchange and, perhaps most of all, the movement of people. Given migration (both temporary and permanent) is simply the greatest force for development that we know, that would be a tragedy for development prospects.

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Future Tense Recommends
Severance, by Ling Ma, is not the novel to read right now if you’re looking for escapist literature. It’s about a devastating pandemic that originates in China and spreads worldwide. But it is a beautifully written, thought-provoking tale of—to Charles Kenny’s points—the interconnectedness of supply chains and people around the world, and it puts a fresh spin on the tired zombie-outbreak trope.—Torie Bosch, Future Tense editor

What Next: TBD
In the latest episode of Slate’s technology podcast, Lizzie O’Leary talks to the superintendent of a Seattle-area school district and to Dana Goldstein, an education reporter with the New York Times (and a former New America fellow!), about whether K-12 schools can really handle the move to online education.

—Margaret from Future Tense

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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