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Economic, Workplace and Legal

Preparing to Rebound from the Pandemic: Economic, Workplace and Legal Implications 

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Agnes Scott College’s Gay Johnson McDougall Center for Global Diversity and Inclusion recently hosted the final of four conversations, under a series titled, “Engaging Social Challenges: The Social and Cultural Implications of COVID 19.” The series sought to highlight issues of inequities during COVID-19 as they relate to global diversity and inclusion. 

In this final episode, Ruth Uwaifo Oyelere, Ph.D., associate professor of economics; Elizabeth B. Davis,’ 85, J.D., partner at Burr & Forman, LLP; and Augustus Bonner Cochran, III, Ph.D., J.D., Adeline A. Loridans professor of political science sat down with student moderator, Africana studies major Zoie Moore’ 21, to discuss the economic and legal implications of the pandemic as we prepare to rebound. 

Professor Cochran opened by recognizing the vast magnitude of this crisis, comparing it to a Hurricane Katrina level catastrophe for the whole country, or a nine on the Richter scale, if crises were measured as earthquakes. When asked about the politics of competing responses to the pandemic, Cochran chuckled. “You know how they say there are no atheists in a foxhole? Well, there are no neo-liberals in a crisis.” He went on to observe that the last several years of government trends towards decentralization, privatization, and free-market capitalism have led to inconsistent responses to the pandemic, varying from state to state governments and caused the federal government to appropriate over two trillion in aid in response to the crisis. Professor Cochran observed that “essential workers” are often treated as “expendable workers” and encouraged taking advantage of this crisis to address the underlying inequalities and workplace inequities in America. 

Attorney and alumna Beth Davis’ 85 discussed the various responses from leadership at the state and local levels and the many inconsistent and even conflicting federal and state regulations, ordinances, and directives that businesses and institutions are having to consider as they look to reopening. She noted that colleges and universities are considered “medium risk” and it becomes even more complicated in this setting because “(a college’s) mission is to educate, but people live there, in very close quarters, so it’s providing housing, it’s providing food, it’s delivering culture and bringing people together, and certainly in my experience at Agnes Scott, that was one of the things it did best… and so there would inherently be a drive to make sure you have systems in place to make sure that those relationships can continue to be fostered and developed, and yet to do that in a way that does not put the students, staff, or faculty at risk.”

Professor Oyelere addressed the social equity and economic issues that must be considered as socioeconomic inequality tends to increase in time of economic crisis. She outlined and provided guidance on a range of considerations, warning that institutions seeking to reopen should look beyond the obvious comparison of income or revenue gained versus income or revenue lost and consider a more holistic approach in making their decisions. “Without a holistic view of costs, which is difficult but necessary, the decisions we end up making might seemingly look optimal… but can end up being sub-optimal and even end up having unintended consequences that could actually have long term effects on organizations, institutions, and even for the whole economy.” 

The group went on to discuss whether decisions to reopen were premature and ways in which to advocate for and protect vulnerable populations. When asked for their closing remarks, each offered a single word as a call to action. Oyelere stressed the importance of data; collecting, observing, reporting, publishing, and following recommendations based on the results of that data. Cochran called for continued dialogue, saying that it would be the key to moving forward as a society. “Liberal arts colleges need to model dialogue for the rest of society. We’ve gotten to the point where we almost can’t talk to each other. A college classroom at a liberal arts college is the epitome of a place where people ought to be able to disagree on fundamental issues of society and I think that’s what we can continue to do moving forward.” Davis agreed with the importance of data and dialogue, but also the importance of being nimble, to be able to dodge and pivot, and to act quickly in response as new data comes in and dialogues continue.