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‘The strong get stronger’: The coronavirus pandemic will exacerbate some of the most worrisome trends in American life — unless we take action

Rob Dobi for the Boston Globe

Theda Skocpol, a Harvard sociologist and political scientist, has been studying crises her whole career. And one thing she’s noticed is that, when upheaval strikes, many imagine it offers a chance to move in a genuinely new direction.

That’s evident now, in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, with calls for a sweeping, Green New Deal-style stimulus that would re-order the economy and hope that this singular moment of digital connectivity — free, streaming performances from Yo-Yo Ma and online cocktail parties with friends — will yield a kinder, gentler Internet.

“But it’s not the case that the world is created anew just because there’s a massive crisis,” Skocpol says. “That is not the way it works in human societies.”

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Time and time again, she says, we’ve seen crises exacerbate — or supercharge — existing tendencies. And in a country riven by political division and inequality, that could be a very bad thing.

Start with the gap between rich and poor. The decimation of entire categories of low-wage work will deepen the divide in the short term. But the coming recession also seems likely to accelerate automation in food service and retail as struggling companies look for ways to cut costs — doing lasting damage to the prospects of low-income families.

In the business world, economic power seems likely to grow more concentrated at the top. Analysts expect Amazon, already putting immense pressure on small business, to emerge from the pandemic with even more market share as housebound consumers develop stronger online shopping habits.

A lonely country could grow even lonelier if the video conferencing software that’s been such a lifeline for stay-at-home workers quickens the shift to telecommuting.

With countries shutting their borders, the ethno-nationalism that’s become such a destabilizing force in international relations seems sure to get a boost. And concern about the legitimacy of American elections could turn into a full-blown crisis, come November, if voters stay away from the polls for fear of infection.

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It’s a bleak picture in a bleak moment. But there is some reason for hope.

If there are all sorts of worrisome trends in American life waiting to be amplified by the coronavirus pandemic, there are some promising ones, too. Even if they can be hard to find.

MARK MURO, A senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, studies the digitization of our economy. And over the last decade or so, it’s been a pretty dismal science. A handful of high-tech hubs have prospered, while big swaths of the country have been left behind.

The coronavirus pandemic, he expects, will exacerbate this “superstar” dynamic in the economy.

“The strong get stronger,” Muro says.

Recently, Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s, released research pointing to five sectors of the economy that are particularly vulnerable to damage from the coronavirus: energy; transportation; employment services (temporary workers and other human resources help); travel arrangements (travel agents and cruise bookers); and leisure and hospitality. Together, these industries account for a whopping 24 million jobs, or about 16 percent of the workforce.

Muro and colleagues at Brookings mapped the share of these jobs by metropolitan area, and found tech-oriented university hubs like San Jose, Calif., and Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C., among the least vulnerable. Sun Belt and Midwestern communities — many of them already struggling — were poised for painful blows.

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“Places that have never recovered from the last recession will be especially hard hit,” he says.

A separate Brookings brief explains that automation — which has especially displaced young workers, people of color, and workers in the industrial Midwest in recent years — does not proceed at a steady clip. Instead, it spikes during recessions. That means retail workers and food servers thrown out of work when the coronavirus hit may not have jobs to return to, as automated checkout and food-ordering kiosks replace their labor.

In the meantime, their children — home from school for the next couple of months and possibly much longer — are at risk of substantial academic setbacks.

As better-off kids pull up to desks in their bedrooms and tap away at their laptops, calling on mom or dad for help, their low-income peers — already on the wrong side of the achievement gap — are struggling to find space in crowded apartments or homeless shelters and may have no Internet access at all.

“We have this literature called ‘summer learning,’ which already shows that over a normal summer vacation, upper-middle-class kids hold their own, in terms of what they’re learning, whereas everybody else loses ground,” says Skocpol, the Harvard sociologist. “This is going to be another version of that, I suspect.”

Some kids, she fears, will never catch up.

MEANWHILE, SOME OF the most powerful actors in the economy are poised to come out of the pandemic stronger.

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Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, reported big growth in use of the company’s WhatsApp messaging service in a recent call with reporters. Amazon has announced plans to hire 100,000 warehouse workers to keep up with demand.

The e-commerce behemoth has seen big jumps in sales of necessities, such as groceries and over-the-counter medications, that customers had been accustomed to buying elsewhere. And analysts expect the company to hold onto a big chunk of its new business when the crisis passes, further entrenching its spot in a winner-take-all economy.

One advantage for the Big Tech firms is their enormous cash reserves. Facebook and Amazon each had stockpiles of $55 billion in cash and short-term investments at the end of 2019. Apple had $100 billion. That makes it easier to weather a recession. And if they emerge in a good position, they’ll be poised to acquire weakened rivals or expand into other kinds of business. Amazon’s splashy purchase of Whole Foods a few years ago may be just the beginning.

Muro, of Brookings, sees a broader effect, too. The country’s heavy reliance on video conferencing and cloud computing during the coronavirus pandemic, he says, will only make technology more central to the economy.

“If technology has been one of the driving forces of this decade,” he says, “I think Big Tech will win in the next phase.”

On the political front, President Trump’s sharp rhetoric — he has repeatedly accused Democrats of exploiting the crisis for political gain — has dampened hopes for a detente between red- and blue-state America.

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Even a pandemic, it seems, can’t bring us together.

And with mainstream and conservative media telling different stories about the outbreak, it will be difficult for the country to rally around a single approach. In recent days, Fox News personalities have joined the president in talking up unproven treatments for COVID-19. And they’ve called for a strategy that would isolate the sick and aged and let the rest of the country return to normal — even as public health experts warn that such an approach would lead to a huge surge in infections and overwhelm hospitals.

With the country stuck in a patchwork response to the pandemic, the coronavirus is likely to be with us for months to come. And that poses a real threat to the November election.

As it stands, only five states — Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, and Washington — conduct elections mostly or entirely by mail. Without a big mobilization in the rest of the country, tens of thousands of voters in swing states may skip the election altogether, worried about getting infected at the polls.

A rapid scaling up of mail-in voting could come with problems of its own — stoking paranoia about fraud and inviting new attempts at voter suppression. That would mean an already bitter fight over the integrity of American elections could reach new heights on the eve of one of the most consequential in the country’s history.

If the coronavirus poses a threat to democratic procedures here, it could also fuel the ethno-nationalist passions that have shaken the world order.

The president has pledged to stop calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.” But the recent war of words between the United States and China — Chinese officials, for their part, trafficked in conspiracy theories about the American military bringing the new coronavirus to their country — show how contagion can put nations at each other’s throats. And even as the rhetoric cools, borders remain closed, travel bans are still in place, and distrust runs high.

In the short term, at least, the pandemic seems likely to reinforce the trend toward nationalism and great power rivalry.

MITIGATING THESE TRENDS requires, in part, stop-gap policies that can prop up those most battered by the pandemic.

Washington’s $2 trillion economic rescue package expands jobless aid by several weeks and extends benefits to vulnerable gig workers. It also provides hundreds of billions of dollars of relief to small businesses walloped by the sudden recession.

But temporary fixes are just that — temporary.

If the country is really going to confront the problems the coronavirus has exacerbated, it will have to draw on some of the deep counter-currents in American life.

Our worrisome tide of inequality has inspired a broad movement for meaningful economic reform — higher minimum wages, paid sick leave — that has already won impressive victories in parts of the country. The pandemic could help to nationalize that movement.

After all, it has exposed the gap between white-collar, work-from-home crowd and the precarious classes like little before.

There are opportunities elsewhere. A long-running effort to extend the school day could get a boost as the media focuses more attention on children falling behind in their studies during the pandemic.

And an enormous well of sympathy for hard-hit small businesses could energize the “buy local” movement when something like normal life resumes, helping them claw back a bit of market share from Amazon in the short term.

Haoxiang Zhu, an economist at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, points to some long-term possibilities, too. The outsize importance of technology during the pandemic, he says, could force small firms to get more tech-savvy — and more competitive.

He says he could also imagine a shift to a China-style model, where smaller companies are much more integrated with the Big Tech platforms — providing them access to a huge number of consumers.

“Small business wants to become more resilient," he says. "One way to do that is to partner with a bigger firm.”

Another important tendency that could be harnessed for change: Our divisive politics and hard-edged nationalism have left many Americans aching for normalcy. And that ache has only grown more acute with the coronavirus crisis.

That desire for normalcy goes a long way toward explaining the appeal of the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden.

Derided in the early stages of the campaign as a hopelessly out-of-step pollyanna, his throwback calls for national unity and international cooperation suddenly feel more suited to the moment.

And a Biden victory this fall feels like a prerequisite for the sort of changes — substantive and symbolic — that coronavirus-era America demands.

“I think it really does come down to whether Democrats win,” says Skocpol. It’s “not because Democrats are perfect," she says. But Biden would “try to lower the temperature on the anger and mutual recriminations” in a country that could use some soothing.

“We’ve found out that a president can make a huge difference,” Skocpol says, "more than I would have thought.”


David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe