Expert Panel: How can we safely reopen the economy?

Returning society to some version of normal will require customized plans that may vary by locale, depending on the intensity of COVID-19 infections. Even so, the economy can’t be safely reopened without strong data, unified decision-making frameworks, and some policies that span the country.

That was the consensus of experts from the Haas School of Business and the School of Public Health who took part in a virtual discussion on reopening the economy Friday as part of the Berkeley Conversations COVID-19 series.

“One size does need to fit all for at least large swaths of the population,” said Assoc Prof. Jonathan Kolstad, a health economist with joint appointments at Berkeley Haas and the Department of Economics. “Everyone’s behavior affects everyone else. (Reopening) in the absence of any sort of coordination is an incredibly costly strategy.”

One size does need to fit all for at least large swaths of the population. —Assoc. Prof. Jonathan Kolstad

According to Maya Petersen, associate professor and co-chair of the Graduate Group in Biostatistics at the School of Public Health, fragmentation hurts the ability of any small population anywhere to respond effectively to their epidemics.

“Ideally what happens is you have a unified decision-making framework, you have unified communication, you have clear policies that span the country,’ Petersen said. “And within those, you have the ability to use your data locally to meaningfully fine-tune your epidemic response.”

If there was one steady drumbeat throughout Friday’s conversation it was data, data, data—which panelists agreed are a prerequisite for reopening, and which must be used to guide testing and identify outbreaks. Other key themes were putting proper systems into place, as well as restoring trust.

To do that, leaders need to be realistic, consistent, and deliberate, said Jennifer Chatman, professor of management and Associate Dean of Learning Strategies at Berkeley Haas. “The mental calculus of leadership is even more vital now because you need to anticipate how people are going to react to what you say and what you do,” Chatman said.

The mental calculus of leadership is even more vital now because you need to anticipate how people are going to react to what you say and what you do.” —Prof. Jennifer Chatman

“Leaders should be realistic with their people—the future is going to be complicated, and it’s going to be challenging. At the same time, they also need to be reassuring, so people can continue to have some semblance of calm and be productive. Leaders need to ask people to comply with rules, but at the same time they need to call on people to use their ingenuity to address problems that we haven’t confronted before,” she said. “If there is any time that a deliberate leader was needed, now is the time.”

Prof. David Levine, a labor economist at Berkeley Haas, said the positive news is that all the tools of good management apply.

“For generations, we’ve been figuring out how to improve product quality, how to make food safer, or how to avoid environmental disasters. And the answer is good management,” he said. “There are lots of management tools around training, incentives, monitoring, and continuous improvement that we know how to use for lots of old threats. Coronavirus is a new threat, but the tools to fight it are the same tools.”

“There are lots of management tools around training, incentives, monitoring, and continuous improvement that we know how to use for lots of old threats. Coronavirus is a new threat but the tools to fight it are the same tools.” —Prof. David Levine

One key thing organizations must do is make it easy for employees to be safe. For example, it’s not enough to just tell people to wash hands: Managers must give people breaks to wash their hands. All states should require every workplace to complete an assessment to look for risks, as California does. Employees should have the authority to stop production if they see a health problem—right now, in most states, they don’t.
“Managers need to make clear that this is how you become a hero, and not a former employee,” Levine said.

However, if one large company has the wherewithal to implement safe solutions for their employees, but those employees live with people working at other firms that don’t, “it verges on futile for that large firm to do all those testing and safety strategies,” Kolstad commented. “At every point, coordination is critical from a health, economic and messaging perspective. If you’re a big employer across a lot of states, keeping your workforce healthy and safe is good for reopening, and good for your employees.”

A woman wearing a protective mask walks past a closed children's clothing store in Chicago, Wednesday, April 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
A woman wearing a protective mask walks past a closed children’s clothing store in Chicago, Wednesday, April 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

People need to remember, however, that our goal as a society is not to get to zero transmissions: Unless we have a vaccine, the goal is to minimize the spread of the virus, Petersen said. The way to do that is to continue using public health techniques such as social distancing and hygiene, while employing integrated data streams to guide testing, identify outbreaks as early as possible, and quickly isolate any new cases.

“We all navigate risks in our lives every day. Thinking in terms of good public health principles, what you need to do is communicate risks clearly to people, have the data available to be able to quantify risks accurately, and you need to have people’s trust so when you say this is the best estimate of your current risk and this is what you need to do to mitigate it, people believe it,” she said.

We all navigate risks in our lives every day. Thinking in terms of good public health principles, what you need to do is communicate risks clearly to people, have the data available to be able to quantify risks accurately, and you need to have people’s trust so when you say this is the best estimate of your current risk and this is what you need to do to mitigate it, people believe it. —Assoc. Prof. Maya Petersen

That’s why organizations must tread carefully, Chatman said. “Crises like this one are opportunities for organizations to display their commitment. Employees are watching closely, and they’re going to remember what you did. If you are known as the employer who, when the going got tough, you got going, there will be long-term cultural consequences.”

This May 1 panel was sponsored by the Haas School of Business as part of Berkeley Conversations: COVID-19. This series of live, online events feature faculty experts from across the UC Berkeley campus who are sharing what they know, and what they are learning, about the pandemic. Panelists were Prof. Jennifer Chatman, Prof. David Levine, and Assoc. Prof. Jonathan Kolstad  from Berkeley Haas and Assoc. Prof. Maya Petersen from the School of Public Health. The moderator was Assistant Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs Dan Mogulof.

 

 

 

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