One year ago, the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic, calling on countries to “take urgent and aggressive action” to stop the spread of the disease. Since March 11, 2020, our world has been transformed: In the United States, more than 500,000 lives have been lost, and economic and social activity have been disrupted in unprecedented ways.
While the public health consequences of the pandemic have been among the most acute, the novel coronavirus has left no domain untouched: The arts have pivoted to virtual performances and programs, religious communities have found new ways to offer services, and lawyers have had to think differently about the government’s role in mitigating the crisis.
Below, nine University of Chicago scholars and experts discuss what they’ve learned from a year of COVID-19, examining how the pandemic has impacted everyday life and transformed how work is conducted in their own disciplines. Their comments help clarify just how much our world has changed—and what challenges lie ahead.
Aziz Huq, Frank and Bernice J. Greenberg Professor of Law
If COVID-19 has illuminated the salutary contributions of virology and epidemiology, it has largely been a cause for lawyers and legal scholars to hang their heads in shame. More than a half-century of administrative law scholarship conduced to a federal bureaucracy that proved unable to meet the elementary challenges of the pandemic from its earliest days. The mechanisms of public accountability, celebrated by scholars of the presidency as levers to elicit good policy, spectacularly failed: The inelasticity of most support for and opposition to the president last year leeched away any incentive he might have had to step up to the plate.
America’s much-touted federalism conduced to a fragmentary and moth-eaten public health infrastructure that only added to the death toll. And our feted law of equality has literally nothing to say about the tragedy of massive disparities between majority and minority racial groups.
Emphatically, these are failures of law; the hecatomb stains our sandals. But will the American legal academy seriously reflect on these tragic shortfalls? Does it have the capacity to do better? I wish I could be more optimistic.
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