COVID-19 has disrupted the usually unnoticed chunks into which the world is organized. Take, for example, the uneasy start of the new school year. All of the familiar ways in which schools segment and structure life—the self-contained classrooms, the contiguous time blocks spent at school, the on-site lunches and after-school activities—have been scrambled or scrapped. Students, teachers, and parents are struggling to adjust.
Adapting successfully to the pandemic means more than reorganizing people and tasks in space and time, difficult as that can be. It also, and foundationally, requires aggregating the cooperation of many individuals, both within and across domains (school, work, home, play), to construct viable new ways of ordering daily life.
The pandemic presents more than a formidable public health crisis; it also exposes and exacerbates a crisis of societal configuration. We face enormous challenges, but the primary problem is not that we lack the necessary resources and skills to address them. The hitch, instead, is that we have tremendous difficulty putting what we have into the combinations we need. The result is a palpable sense of scarcity, which Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir define as “having less than you feel you need.”
Mullainathan and Shafir use a packing metaphor to illustrate the way that configuration interacts with scarcity—as they observe, jelly beans fit far more easily into a small container than does an equal volume of whole fruit. COVID-19 has imposed new constraints on societal arrangements that come in lumpy, hard-to-divide units. Recutting those societal arrangements to meet present conditions is an essential and urgent task.
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