How Do We Build Back Better After a Pandemic?

Now that Christmas trees are littering street corners and the champagne's run out, it feels like the right time to think about what's next and how we climb out of this pandemic. Which brings us to rule No. 1 of any successful plan: You need a catchphrase. 

This summer, the winner for the Covid recovery slogan competition was Build Back Better. You might remember Triple-B from when Joe Biden adopted it as his campaign slogan. Or when it was taken up by leaders in the UK, New Zealand, and Scotland, as well as other organizations around the world. 

We have a lot of building to do 

Starting with the obvious: pandemic preparedness, which moved from the government's "nice-to-have" to "we need this more than a premium Zoom account” list. 

There's no shortage of reports about how pandemic game plans were weakened before Covid arrived on American shores, and how a lack of to-do lists, institutional knowledge, and scientific leadership factored into the severity of the U.S.' early outbreaks. 

Step 1 to building back better: Do the opposite of whatever that was. Experts have recommended that Biden (and future presidents) strengthen the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The Oval Office can't coordinate everything, but it does need to coordinate. 

Step 2: Spend money. States may need their own pandemic budgets. The CDC needs to be better equipped for tasks like setting up national testing and tracing. Federal, state, and hospital stockpiles need some topping off. Whoever makes vaccines needs a raise.

Step 3: Make sure your friends stay friends. The Council on Foreign Relations recommends that the U.S. remain in the WHO. Though it’s a flawed institution, the council argues, it's the best multilateral body to coordinate international action, aid, and accountability. 

Step 4: Untangle the supply chain. Covid-19 exposed our dependence on China for critical medical supplies (along with other goods) and showed that global supply chains have become increasingly complex without becoming more resilient. Supply chains "were designed for cost and efficiency, but without really a thought to what could go wrong along the way," per McKinsey partner Susan Lund.  

Great, now we're prepared for the next health crisis. But how do we emerge stronger from the current economic crisis? 

It should equitable

The pandemic highlighted the racial inequalities present in American society. Black and Hispanic or Latino workers have been more likely to lose their jobs and to serve as essential workers in frontline, low-wage roles. And Black, Hispanic, and Latino business owners were less likely to get CARES Act funds.  

To build back better, more efforts are needed to address racial and class disparities in the recovery itself. You might have heard of the "K-shaped recovery," in which wealthier Americans generally rebounded while those at the bottom have been left even farther behind.

Some areas to start: Unemployment benefit programs, paid sick leave, food assistance programs, rural economic development, broadband access to allow more workers to participate in the remote work revolution, and programs to train or reskill workers at the local level. 

The recovery also needs to be green

The climate clock is ticking down, and the brief dip in emissions from the pandemic's shutdowns is bouncing back.

An equitable and successful economic recovery can align with other long-term needs for a sustainable future, such as reducing emissions, protecting biodiversity, creating more circular supply chains, and generating jobs in new industries. 

Full circle: Climate change is also linked to pandemic preparedness. "The economic pressures driving biodiversity loss and the destruction of ocean health can have cascading impacts on societies, and may increase the risk of future zoonotic viruses (those which jump from animals to humans)," the OECD writes. 

Big picture: Covid-19 has arrived during a pivotal moment for American capitalism. Tying together all these ways we could improve—healthcare, access and equity, infrastructure—"is the need for urgent decisions taken today to incorporate a longer-term perspective," the OECD writes.