To navigate pandemic trade-offs, policymakers need syntheses.
Economists, like researchers in many disciplines, are responding to the urgency of the COVID-19 pandemic. The immediate priorities are understanding the consequences of the crisis for public finances and international trade.
Scholars are scrambling to collect data on how many jobs are lost, what people can afford to buy and what shortages will emerge. Even constructing basic economic statistics such as inflation and gross domestic product is challenging when one-third, say, of activity in the economy has halted. Do we count a furloughed person as in work? What comprises a standard basket of goods when no one is going shopping? We need these measures to understand which groups of people will be intolerably affected so that governments can direct help to them. That’s hard to do when standard metrics are having to be rebuilt on the fly.
There are many other pressing questions. When will the health toll of isolation, unemployment or delayed surgery outweigh that caused directly by COVID-19? What are the implications for next year’s supplies of staple foods or of higher levels of long-term disability? How quickly can vaccine manufacture be scaled up? What release-from-lockdown strategies are behaviourally and hence politically feasible? Can national governments negotiate with each other to arrive at cooperative, mutually beneficial policies? What can international agencies do to encourage this when geopolitical tensions are rising?
Addressing these questions requires collaboration across many disciplines to synthesize new findings with old — fast. It’s time to deliver on the benefits of public investment in research.
The courage to step cautiously into other domains must be welcomed. Economists are notoriously less likely than other social scientists to look outside their own discipline, and medical and natural scientists are not accustomed to looking to the social sciences for insight.