Monumental events, ranging from World War I to the Great Depression to 9/11, have altered the course of scholarship. “The Great War” prompted work on diplomatic history, the Depression opened fresh lines of economic analysis, and 9/11 led to new studies on memory.
COVID-19 has undoubtedly affected the nature of academic inquiry—but what course will it take in the long run? Though exploration into a post-pandemic world may seem premature, scholars have begun pondering these questions—if not pursuing them already.
With both the past and future of scholarship in mind, NYU faculty members have outlined paths of academic inquiry that are likely to be undertaken as a result of COVID-19. They offered their insights as potential research questions, with an eye toward their larger significance.
Nancy Deihl, Department Chair, Art and Art Professions
Rachel Lifter, Clinical Assistant Professor and Program Director, MA Costume Studies Program
Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development
COVID-19 has made face coverings ubiquitous. Home-made or store bought, polypropylene plastic or simple cotton, these coverings are the global “fashion” of the times. In the US, this aesthetic of public health is multiply politicized: interpreted as both infringement of individual rights and concern for one’s family and community and used to highlight the human toll of capitalism, as factory and warehouse employees who are making and shipping masks are often doing so in unsafe working environments. Looking closely at masks—their material and visual characteristics, as well as practices of wearing and making, might shed new light on these politics of 2020 and beyond.
Fabienne Doucet, Associate Professor of Early Childhood and Urban Education
Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development
The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare deep and long-standing racial inequalities that have plagued the US educational system for close to two centuries. From segregated schools following the abolition of slavery to separate and unequal schools in the present day, despite the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, schools have remained contested battlegrounds where anti-Black racism and the possessive investment in whiteness have thrived. Against this backdrop, a frightening crop of ruthless murders of Black people at the hands of police and vigilantes has made the dominance of anti-Black racism as an organizing force of US society undeniable.
All over the country, schools are purporting commitments to anti-racist communities while lacking clarity for how best to ignite and sustain such efforts. Research is needed to help clarify the most effective entry points to propel system change.
As governments have been unable, unwilling, or slow to respond to basic needs of health and safety in moments of crisis such as storms, pandemics, and police violence, citizen-led mutual aid collectives have stepped in to take their place: distributing food, making masks, caring for vulnerable neighbors, organizing public safety, etc. Efforts such as these are touted as more flexible, just, and democratic alternatives to state efforts. Yet are they a viable alternative? Are they effective at doing what they claim? And can they scale up from small, localized collectives to provide models for how to reimagine national and international governmental functions?
COVID-19 has disrupted the expectations of commercial parties ranging from deliveries of commodities under long-term supply contracts, to contracts for the merger or acquisition of firms, to rental agreements. Parties have claimed that either the unanticipated scope of disease or the government regulations imposed to address the pandemic has frustrated the purpose of their contracts or has made performance so difficult or costly as to render the contract a nullity. Contracts scholars, as well as courts that deal with the inevitable litigation that follows from contractual breakdown, will have to consider whether the default rules of contract law excuse performance in these circumstances, or whether specific contractual terms, such as force majeure clauses, cover events like the pandemic.
The historical and ongoing anti-Black, anti-immigrant, and anti-poor discrimination in this country has created structural and institutional bias in systems that are designed to serve (e.g., healthcare, police, social service). This has led to persistent health disparities that are systematic and plausibly avoidable, coupled with residential segregation as a fundamental cause of many of the social determinants of health.
It is evident that vulnerable populations are the most impacted by COVID-19. What is less clear is how the surge in the healthcare system to address COVID-19 patients impacted those with other illnesses and conditions, and if this exacerbated existing health disparities by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. This information is key to the development of prevention and intervention strategies for future waves of COVID-19 and/or future public health emergencies.
Following established conventions of developmental dichotomization into “children” and “adults” in health and social programming, adolescents and young adults (AYA) have received little attention in the policy and public health response to COVID-19. However, emerging evidence suggests social and developmental factors unique to adolescence and young adulthood may reduce the effectiveness of COVID-19 control measures among the age cohort. These included lower perceived risk among AYA, lower adherence to social distancing among AYA, and more social contacts among AYA, with important implications for population-level transmission dynamics. Interestingly, similar disparities in program effectiveness for AYA have previously been documented. For example, AYA living with HIV achieve significantly worse care outcomes as compared to their older peers, raising important questions about developmental tailoring of services as a potential mechanism for improving the effectiveness of health and social programming.
On any given day, approximately 600,000 individuals are being detained in county jails despite having been convicted of no crimes. Increasingly, researchers and advocates have expressed concern that this widespread practice of pretrial detention, by detaching detainees from their jobs and families, may actually increase the risk of criminal behavior. During the COVID-19 pandemic, county jails reduced their populations by an average of one third in order to reduce contagion risk. Future research could explore the impact of COVID-related early release on defendant outcomes.
While the racial disparities in infection and death rates from Covid-19 clearly raise questions about the intersections between public health, economic, racial, and structural inequalities; the particular impact of illness on Black people across the Americas may well be rooted in the history of slavery. What might we learn about the protocols of medical inquiry when we think about the exposure of enslaved Africans to disease? How has disease bolstered the "science" of racial difference? How did enslaved men and women mobilize healing and healthcare practices to protect themselves and their communities? Understanding the long and entangled roots of race and health might enable us to confront the public health crisis that we are currently facing.
Societal crises, including the one posed by COVID-19, can have two different effects on inequality. The direct, or immediate, effect is to exacerbate existing inequities. The indirect, or more long-term, effect is for people to demand change that leads to reduced economic, gender, and racial inequality. Scholars often use the 20th-century examples of mass warfare and economic depression to illustrate events that stimulated this indirect effect and led to profound social change, although this change was more durable for some groups than others. So far in the major crises of the 21st century, the Great Recession of 2008 and the COVID-19 pandemic, this indirect effect has been much less apparent. Is this because our democracy is broken or somehow captured, or is it simply because by its very nature democracy often fails to deliver equality? To answer this we need to look not only at new evidence unfolding today but also at lessons from the long history of democracy.
Chastened by the pandemic, much attention in the press has been devoted to climate change as the next catastrophe. Science knows how to address this issue. Now, with the experience of disruption, displacement and suffering wrought by a pandemic, we will likely see a surge in research to mitigate climate change by decreasing CO2, improved photovoltaics for energy capture, and the production of environmentally friendly materials.
Due to the impact of COVID-19, there is a significant decrease of health services use (e.g., physician visits and emergency visits) in the US. Previously, Medicare only covered telemedicine expenses to video visits for rural beneficiaries and required video visits to take place at medical facilities. In response to the pandemic, Medicare temporarily expanded its coverage of telemedicine to all beneficiaries. As the technology becomes more advanced, it is expected that tele-health will be expanded, even after the pandemic. While tele-health is booming, we need to be keenly aware that we are facing an enormous challenge of digital divide. Tele-health could potentially widen health disparities in the nation. Overall, tele-health will transform our healthcare systems, but we need to understand the nature of the substantial impact it will have on patients’ quality of care and well-being.
The recent protest movements throughout the world have underscored racial equality and justice. Among these is the Black Lives Matter movement. Systematic inequality structurally creates gaps in wealth, social security, and quality of life issues which these movements emphasize. Infrastructure inequity is a quintessential example of this structural inequality. For instance, in New York City, members of African-American communities have experienced a more extended period of impact and recovery from Hurricane Sandy compared with residents in other neighborhoods. African-American neighborhoods in New York City have also witnessed a higher number of cases and deaths in the COVID-19 pandemic. We need an equitable planning of resources to improve the resiliency of critical infrastructures in disadvantaged neighborhoods and reduce the systematic inequality in urban environments.