The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Social Scientists Discuss Impacts of COVID-19, Racial Disparities, and What Comes Next

Webinar | COVID-19: Social Scientists' Views on the Pandemic’s Impact & What Comes Next(Clockwise from top left) Devon Greyson, Assistant Professor of Communication; Jamie Rowen, Associate Professor of Legal Studies and Political Science; Raymond La Raja, Associate Dean for Program Innovation and Professor of Political Science; Jennifer Lundquist (moderator), Senior Associate Dean of Research & Faculty Development and Professor of Sociology; Lenore Palladino, Assistant Professor of Economics and Public Policy; and Ofer Sharone, Associate Professor of Sociology
Tuesday, June 23, 2020

On June 9, SBS faculty gathered online to share their insights on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and what may come next, from their perspectives as expert social scientists. Indeed while the novel coronavirus was the focus of the event, the theme of racial justice was also a major focus of their research and their topics of discussion.

“We are a nation gripped by intertwined crises today and it’s critical that we come together to chart the way forward,” said Lenore Palladino, assistant professor of economics and public policy.

Dean John A. Hird kicked things off. He introduced the moderator, Jennifer Lundquist, senior associate dean of research & faculty development and professor of sociology, and the five SBS faculty participants. His remarks offered a sobering and poignant reminder that the current protests and expressions of anger are direct responses to the systemic, policy-driven anti-blackness that courses through our society.

As such, because it is so systemic and because it is expressed through our norms, our cultures, our laws, and our public policies, “we’re all implicated,” said Dean Hird. “Many of us are outraged and we should all be engaged in the struggle to realize our nation’s ideals.”

With the help of our faculty and the research they continue to conduct, SBS aims to equip us all better to engage in said struggle.

Panelists each provided a general overview of their research and potential action items in response to their data, followed by a Q&A session, beginning with Devon Greyson, assistant professor of communication.

Clip begins with Devon Greyson at the 2:53 mark.

Greyson studies health communication, i.e. what people do with health information and when and why it matters. As a result, Greyson often deals with misinformation and disinformation. Notable areas of this kind of public discourse include vaccinations, breast feeding, and support groups.

“In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic as we’ve seen it unfold this far, there’s been a great deal of both mis- and disinformation,” said Greyson, referring to examples passed around English language media, like the claim that people ought to quarantine their groceries.

“They weren’t wholly inaccurate and many well-intentioned people shared this misinformation,” said Greyson. “It probably didn’t hurt anyone and was mostly done with good motives, but throughout there have also been fake claims about cures or preventions for the novel coronavirus and these have ranged from relatively innocuous instructions to gargle water to recommendations to ingest potentially harmful substances.”

A powerful motivator for disinformation, which differs from misinformation in that it is spread with nefarious intent, warned Greyson is financial motivation to create demand for certain substances, not excluding potential remedies.

Disinformation “pollutes the information environment around the virus and prevention,” said Greyson, sewing confusion, mistrust, and divisions among populations as indicated by the rise of anti-racism.

Next was Jamie Rowen, assistant professor of legal studies and political science, who led the discussion toward criminal justice, specifically veterans and treatment courts. Treatment courts here in Massachusetts are for people who have committed certain crimes and have diagnosed mental health or substance use disorders, and receive court-supervised treatments.

Clip begins with Jamie Rowen at the 8:15 mark.

“I want to start by acknowledging that many of the trends we are seeing are the result of years of advocacy by those most impacted by criminal justice policies: communities with few economic opportunities and most importantly communities of color,” said Rowen. “This pandemic brought these inequalities in these communities into stark relief.”

But it’s not just the under-served and under-resourced who are affected by COVID-19 and the inequities it has exacerbated; it’s everyone. And so, this moment is ripe for a social justice movement.

“People who have been privileged now finally know what it feels like to fear for our lives just leaving the house, and to know that our social and political institutions are not capable of helping us and in fact could put us in more danger,” said Rowen.

By studying how all Massachusetts treatment courts respond to the shutdown, and the dangers of incarceration, Rowen hopes to find lasting solutions to shore up the disparities in our court system. These are norm changes, she said, and can be even more durable leading to more formal legal and political change.

“The change may come more slowly in other states, but it’s coming,” said Rowen.

Rowen’s points about legal and political changes served as a segue for Raymond La Raja, associate dean for program innovation and professor of political science. Also an associate director of UMass Amherst Poll, La Raja illuminated potential seismic changes to the political and electoral landscape.

Clip begins with Raymond La Raja at the 11:49 mark.

Conceding that “pollsters like me got it wrong in 2016 and we’re still stinging from the criticism,” La Raja notes that some 2016 predictions showed a Republican winner while others that showed Hillary Clinton in the lead happened to be in the margin of error.

Where Donald J. Trump, differed in the eyes of pollsters, though was that “we thought Trump was too atypical for this model,” said La Raja.

Data from that same model brought La Raja to the conclusion that “we can expect a democratic win this time,” referencing three points: 1) Trump’s arguments for a strong economy have “fallen off a cliff” because of COVID-19 and because voters tend to blame the president for the economy regardless of party or actual cause; 2) Trump’s approval rating is the worst of any president in the era of modern polling, due especially to his handling of the coronavirus and reaction to protests against racial prejudice; and 3) while incumbents typically hold an advantage over challengers using the White House to campaign and expand their coalition, Trump ran his first campaign as a political outsider and now after four years in office must own what has transpired without blaming others.

COVID-19 has also transformed the voting process and propagated the need for mail-in ballots.

“Experts advise massive mail-in balloting.,” said La Raja. And while the opportunities for fraud are low, mail-in ballot challenges may be significant and expensive.

“I’m concerned that many mail-in ballots will be thrown out because the election administrators will question the signatures that voters write on the ballots,” said La Raja. “Research shows that ballots from non-white and low-income communities tend to be disqualified the most.”

Next up was Palladino, who addressed why Americans generally became financially fragile leading up to COVID-19 and how increased corporate taxes constitutes one area of improvement.

Clip begins with Lenore Palladino at the 16:55 mark.

“In the 2010s we saw high corporate profit and falling unemployment which led to this really false sense of broad shared prosperity,” said Palladino. “But we know now that corporate profits did not mean that most workers have a financial cushion. Record corporate profits flowed disproportionately to wealthy share sellers and justified the squeezing of worker compensation over the course of the decade.”

Why is this important? When we consider that 92% of corporate equity is owned by white households, we realize the underlying institutional racism embedded in the private sector.

“Part of the economic impact from the pandemic is from how corporate profits were distributed before the crisis,” said Palladino. 

Citing 16 hospitals that received $50 million in bailout money, Palladino noted these same hospitals continue to “pay top executives millions in compensation while at the same time more than half of those hospitals are cutting jobs and hours of frontline workers.”

Thus, there is a danger to renew pressure to embrace austerity and cut critical public services and jobs at this time – “This is the absolute worst step for economic recovery,” said Palladino. “Supporting collapsing city and state budgets is a key part of the equation for surviving the pandemic.”

Rounding out the panelists was Ofer Sharone, associate professor of sociology and 2020 SBS Outstanding Teaching Award winner. An expert on unemployment crises, Sharone broadly expects unemployment due to COVID-19 to enter two phases.

Clip begins with Ofer Sharone at the 21:37 mark.

We’re already in the thick of phase one, said Sharone, which is marked by a scale of unemployment that even with the most optimistic projections of 13.3% unemployment right now, is the highest unemployment since the Great Depression.

“Typically we replace somewhere between 30-50% of peoples’ lost wages,” said Sharone. “As you recognize, most people have fixed expenses like housing and cars and kids that you can’t really reduce by 30–50%, so what that means is usually unemployment brings about a very immediate financial crisis but right now because of the CARES Act that passed in March, people are getting a $600 top-off on weekly unemployment which is putting most people at around 100% replacement rate, actually some people above it so that’s a big deal.”

But “I’m really worried about phase two, and that’s what’s starting to come,” said Sharone. He thinks phase two will be longer and harder.

As the economy ramps back up but social distancing practices remain, Sharone predicts partially opened restaurants with leaner staffs, a substantial embrace of automated technology, and widespread budgetary shortfalls. Furloughs, layoffs, and continued unemployment, could lead to an increase in stigma attached to the unemployed and a decrease in support for their needs.

Following their remarks, Lundquist posed questions submitted by the virtual audience. Panelists then had the opportunity to engage directly with these topics, and to extrapolate on possible solutions to the issues they foresee.