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Reopening America, China's 'Mask Diplomacy,' State Police Powers: RAND Weekly Recap

May 8, 2020

This week we discuss a new RAND tool that estimates the effects of rolling back or maintaining social distancing and other disease-fighting measures; how China is trying to distract from its role in the pandemic; state police powers and COVID-19; protecting food workers and volunteers; the looming rental housing crisis; and using rideshares to provide non-emergency medical transportation.

State Policy Evaluation Tool

Image by RAND Corporation

Reopening America: New Tool Shows Economic and Health Effects

As many states begin to roll out COVID-19 recovery plans, leaders need the best possible evidence to guide their decisions. That's why RAND researchers created an interactive tool that provides estimates of both the public health and economic effects of rolling back or maintaining social distancing and other disease-fighting measures.

The findings suggest that, while states that relax these policies now can expect economic improvements, they're also likely to see higher numbers of cases and deaths by September, as well as rebounds in demand for beds in hospitals and intensive care units.

RAND economist Aaron Strong describes the situation as a classic prisoner's dilemma rather than a simple trade-off between health and the economy. “I would rather go to the beach [than stay home], but I know that that is not a good alternative for the community,” he says. “So, we can either open up completely and have significant consequences, or we can cooperate and create an outcome that may be costly in the short run, but we will have a healthier population and healthier economy in the long run.”

A woman walks past a portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Shanghai, China March 12, 2020, photo by Aly Song/Reuters

A woman walks past a portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Shanghai, March 12, 2020

Photo by Aly Song/Reuters

Don't Be Fooled by China's 'Mask Diplomacy'

China has provided masks, ventilators, and testing kits to hundreds of countries, including the United States. According to RAND's Jeffrey Hornung, Beijing is using “simplistic mask diplomacy” to distract the world from its role in the pandemic. And meanwhile, China has continued its provocations in the Asia-Pacific, challenging its neighbors' sovereignty claims while these same countries are focused on fighting COVID-19. “Don't let masks and ventilators fool,” says Hornung. “There is an opportunity to be had, and China appears unlikely to waste it.”

Police officers patrol the beach after the closing of all the beaches in Miami-Dade County due to COVID-19, in Miami Beach, Florida, March 19, 2020, photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

Police officers patrol a beach, which is closed due to COVID-19, in Miami-Dade County, Florida, March 19, 2020

Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

State Police Powers: A Less-Than-Optimal Pandemic Response

With quarantines, stay-at-home-orders, and prohibitions on businesses and gatherings, Americans are experiencing unprecedented government restrictions. This is made possible by police powers, which allow states to make and enforce laws necessary to preserve public health and safety. However, exercising these powers comes at great cost to individual rights and liberties—and to the economy. According to RAND's Douglas Ligor, making substantial investments in health care and biotechnology infrastructure could help avoid the need to exercise these powers during future pandemics.

A volunteer with Highpoint Charitable Services loads groceries into the car of a family in need at a food bank in LaGrange, Kentucky, April 13, 2020, photo by Bryan Woolston/Reuters

A volunteer loads groceries into the car of a family in need at a food bank in LaGrange, Kentucky, April 13, 2020

Photo by Bryan Woolston/Reuters

How to Better Protect Food Workers

Access to food is critical to getting through the pandemic. That puts workers in food retail, donation, and meal delivery on the front lines. According to RAND experts, more could be done to protect these workers—and the vulnerable groups they serve. For example, staff could be provided with masks and gloves and given first-responder status so they have access to priority testing. Better pay and benefits could also help attract and retain workers. Finally, the public can help by practicing both social distancing and patience when waiting in line.

Protesters calling for rent payments to be canceled amid the outbreak of COVID-19, in Washington, D.C., April 25, 2020, photo by Erin Scott/Reuters

Protesters call for rent payments to be canceled, Washington, D.C., April 25, 2020

Photo by Erin Scott/Reuters

The Looming Rental Housing Crisis

In response to COVID-19, the federal government has expanded unemployment benefits and provided cash assistance to many Americans. But this aid won't reach millions of low-income households that are disproportionately renters. What can be done to address this problem—and the broader issue of housing affordability and security? The best way to help renters may actually be to provide them with assistance through policies that target their landlords, say RAND experts. Such strategic policies are also likely to be less costly and easier to implement than hasty reactions to evictions and homelessness.

A rideshare driver wears gloves and a mask while driving following the outbreak of COVID-19, in New York City, March 15, 2020, photo by Jeenah Moon/Reuters

A rideshare driver in New York City, March 15, 2020

Photo by Jeenah Moon/Reuters

Can Rideshares Help People Get Routine Medical Care?

Before the pandemic, millions of Americans were already missing medical appointments or failing to pick up prescriptions due to transportation barriers. Today, these challenges have worsened. RAND experts say that allowing rideshare services to provide non-emergency medical transportation may help. While there are many safety and legal considerations, this could save lives, reserve emergency resources for people who need them, and provide employment in a time of economic hardship.

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