By Stephen Menendian
Sept. 16, 2020
Author's Note: I composed the first draft of this blog in early April and was working on revisions at the time George Floyd was murdered, at which point I shelved it. Revisiting it as the school year began, I was struck by the fact that, in addition to the need for large-scale transformative change, we shouldn’t lose sight of the potential for simpler, transactional changes to improve lives and help build a better society. We need both structural changes as well as incremental ones. We shouldn’t dismiss or ignore the latter even as we work towards the former. In working on our Targeted Universalism primer, I wrote about “Vision for Baltimore,” a simple screening program for 15,000 public school students that made a huge difference in students’ lives by identifying those who needed glasses and providing them. Many students who appeared to have trouble learning or reading simply needed glasses. Meaningful change comes in both large and small forms.
The COVID-19 pandemic will change our society in ways that are difficult to predict with precision, but will undoubtedly be far-reaching, just as earlier crises from the Great Recession to the 9/11 attacks resulted in dramatic policy and social change. As the long-term damage from our current crisis unfolds in the coming months and years, we will need answers to the myriad of problems that ensue, from municipal fiscal distress to housing instability and unemployment, and we will need better preparedness for future pandemics.
The dramatic policy responses to the coronavirus such as mandatory mask-wearing and fiscal stimulus have proved divisive — as was the case with the Dodd-Frank or the PATRIOT Act, two major legislative regulatory responses to the aforementioned earlier crises, each of which provoked fierce debate and political disagreement. There is no shortage of sharp disagreements over the best policy path forward. But at the same time, there are things so obvious and necessary that if we had a less polarized society, we could achieve a broad consensus.
Here are five common-sense, transactional changes to our society that should occur in the wake of this crisis. If people are willing to look beyond partisan blinders and lay down ideological swords, these shifts can be attained:
1) Better Respect and Pay for Teachers
This past spring, tens of millions of Americans were forced to work from home while schools shuttered and transitioned to online education. Parents of grade-school children got a first-hand object lesson in the value teachers provide. School systems and universities turned to online learning modules, using a mixture of Google classrooms, Zoom, and online teaching tools for instruction, lesson planning, and communication.
Even for parents who consider themselves at least decently-educated, this experience was something of a rude awakening. Educational instruction involves more than simply assigning work or explaining a concept. It involves motivating students, and encouraging and building interest in the subject-matter. It involves social and emotional learning: how to get along with other students, focus attention, manage conflict and feelings. We ask our teachers to do this every day, on top of making our children proficient in some pre-determined subject area.
Even parents with subject matter expertise (imagine being a mathematician instructing long division to 5th graders) may have a much more difficult time with these others elements, while also managing their child-student’s time, recreation, and attention. Parents have become “facilitators” of education, helping teachers and students alike. As Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones admitted recently, “At the end of the school year, I got a list from my daughter’s teacher about every assignment she had missed. I thought she was up in her room on her computer doing her assignments.”
Now that this crisis has extended into the fall, this problem has deepened. Whereas the initial crisis truncated a school year for many students, it is likely that online schooling will be a much larger part of the educational experience this school year. I sincerely hope that this experience leaves a strong impression on the minds of parents and non-parents alike on the value and importance of skilled teachers. When this crisis abates, I hope the tens of millions of us with children at home take the time to express our appreciation for our teachers, and to support any and all efforts to increase their remuneration.
2) Sick-Leave for All Public-Facing Workers
This is more of a political lift, but it is just so blatantly obvious that it needs to said: there is no excuse or justification for employees of any public-facing business spreading disease to their customers, even something as seemingly minor as a cold or flu. What was once viewed as an acceptable life risk should now be viewed as taboo, and regarded as socially and economically unacceptable.
We take as a given that restaurants make sure that the food they serve is safe and not spoiled, rotten or otherwise contaminated. Serving safe food is something we all expect. Why should that be any different for the servers or cooks who prepare and serve that food? Yet if the cook at McDonalds or a stocking clerk at a grocery store or a cashier at Target is sick, they could infect dozens if not hundreds of members of the public just as easily as contaminated food.
Requiring sick-leave for public-facing employees may be an additional cost for businesses with razor-thin margins, but there is no excuse for endangering public health. Providing paid sick-leave has to be a cost of doing business just as much as food spoilage may be to avoid spreading salmonella, for example. Without it, lower income workers will report to work even if they are sick, much like concussed football players try to get back into a game even if they shouldn’t.
One of the under-appreciated facts that has acquired broader public appreciation as a result of the pandemic is just how lethal the seasonal flu is which kills tens of thousands of Americans per year. The fact that we have, as a society, chalked up tens of thousands of deaths a year from seasonal flu as a fact of life strikes me as unnecessarily callous, especially when the measures we can take to prevent its spread and transmission are so simple and low-cost, like asking workers who are sick to stay home.
All workers — but especially those who serve the public — need to have sick leave and be explicitly told to stay home if they are sick or unwell, not just have an enumerated number of sick days. Public health needs to be more of a priority than a fast-food franchise or retail store’s bottom-line. This should also extend to workers who work with other people, not just the public. For those of us with office jobs, it should be equally taboo to head into the office feeling unwell in the interest of being an “iron man” or perceived as a hard worker.
Workers should stay home when sick, and their employers should not only support that decision by providing sick leave but also mandate it.
3) Better Public Hygiene in Public Spaces and Public Transit
In 2016, I had the privilege of spending time in Japan. One of the most striking things about Tokyo and its surrounding environs is that almost everyone takes public transit. The transit system is much cleaner and more hygienic than that I’ve experienced elsewhere, including in Europe. The main difference, however, is that many if not most of the transit riders wear masks, not necessarily because they are sick but as a simple hygienic courtesy.
We as a society need to adopt new practices for public spaces and public transit. We need new norms for behavior on the subway and train, as well as in theaters and stadiums. There are many ways we can do this. First, we should have sanitizer kiosks spread out as widely as we have trash can receptacles, just as when you enter a hospital emergency room or urgent care areas. We don’t want the people to litter, so we place trash cans in public. Similarly, we need hand sanitizer and even tissues and masks far more widely used.
Second, we should encourage the general public to wear masks in public more widely, even after this crisis abates. After the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, health authorities discouraged people from spitting on sidewalks and asked that they cover their sneezes. These were not easy changes, but they were patterns that gradually changed. We need better norms for public hygiene for better public health.
Indoor smoking is one analogy that comes to mind. We used to allow people to smoke in restaurants, bars, and planes until we realized that second-hand smoke is actually deadly, despite businesses complaining that they would lose customers from a cigarette ban. Expecting and demanding better public hygiene should be less difficult than banning smoking in public.
4) Temperature Checks in Sensitive Buildings and Airports
How often have you gotten sick after taking a trip somewhere or going to a convention? I’d estimate that it happens to me nearly one-third of the time. Maybe you attributed your illness to stress and lack of sleep? But did you ever consider the consequences of flying a small cylinder tube in the sky with constantly recirculated air? Someone coughing behind you could easily lead you to contract whatever they have. For those frequent flyers among you, you’ve probably wondered about this in the wake of the pandemic.
Obviously, there is some sort of cost-benefit calculation in which we as a society assume that the cost of getting a flu or cold from a plane ride is an acceptable burden. But after this pandemic, maybe we should rethink that. The tens of thousands of people who die from the flu virus should be reason enough to try to prevent transmission, but the risk of a future pandemic increases the urgency.
It takes so little for these viruses to spread. Someone visits a parent who has dinner with a friend who visits a nursing home — now you have a potentially lethal chain of transmission. It is not possible to reduce this risk to zero, but we can take reasonable, low-cost measures to temperature check people entering sensitive areas such as hospitals, planes, or nursing homes. Places where there are people who may have a higher risk of serious or fatal illness if infected, or where the risk of transmission is much higher, should be guarded more carefully.
Consider the security measures we have in place to get onto an airplane or into a stadium or theater. Those of you who remember flying before 9/11 will recall that you could stroll up to an airport minutes before the flight and board without incident. We widely installed safeguards such as TSA checks and other security measures for public places after the attacks. Why only screen just for weapons when diseases can be equally lethal? Perhaps we need illness screenings to get on an airplane or into other major shared public spaces.
Some civil libertarians may object to regular screenings or health checks, and we should be careful that such screenings do not disadvantage the disabled or other marginalized peoples, but we already undergo extensive screenings just to get TSA PreCheck or to board a flight. And boarding a commercial plane or going to a concert is not a constitutional right — it’s a privilege. A health screening is, in some ways, less invasive than the full-body checks that are often used to get onto a plane or going into a public courthouse.
5) Make Voting by Mail the Default
Along with sick-leave for workers, this is the most obvious and necessary change we need to make in our society that is likely to be viewed through a partisan lens. But it really shouldn’t be if we think about it objectively.
I have voted in every presidential election since 2000, and despite having lived in two very different states (Ohio and California), I have never once voted for president in person. Ohio allowed me to vote absentee when I lived away from home for college, and then allowed me to vote “in-person absentee” in 2004 and 2008, even though I could have gone to my local precinct on election day. I liked the idea of voting early by mail, mainly to avoid the hassle and lines of showing up on election day and having to take time off from work. Admittedly, I voted some non-presidential elections in person, but never wanted to be caught in a long line.
Upon moving to California, I immediately signed up to vote by mail (it’s not even called “absentee” voting here — it’s just the norm). And it is super easy. If you don’t trust the mail, you can even drop off your ballot in designated drop-boxes, which is typically what I’ve done.
In addition to convenience, the advantages are manifold. For one, it saves time: you don’t have to wait in lines. Further, you can do deeper research. Have you ever wanted to weigh your options for county sheriff or coroner more closely? Vote by mail. And most important is health and safety. We can’t allow people to be exposed to a viral illness in a pandemic.
The arguments against voting by mail are quite silly as half a dozen states already make it the default, even more permit it, and yet there have been few problems with it. For people who need assistance, states should still provide in-person options. And the concern about fraud? States with mail-in voting such as Colorado and Oregon don’t seem to have problems. And if it were a problem, there are mechanisms to avoid fraud, including signature checks and registration processes to ensure eligibility.
Years from now we will look back on our society and realize that some things that we used to do were dumb, just like how we look back at smoking in bars, spitting on sidewalks, and inadequate screening in airports to see that they were all mistakes. The hope is that we can muster the will to make these necessary changes as well.
Editor's note: The ideas expressed in this blog post are not necessarily those of the Othering & Belonging Institute or UC Berkeley, but belong to the author.