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In Prospect

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from the magazine

In Prospect

Spring 2020
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In late January, the French writer and economist Guy Sorman warned on the City Journal website that the outbreak of a mysterious pathogen in the Chinese city of Wuhan constituted “A Threat to Humanity.” The new coronavirus soon spread across a globalized planet, killing tens of thousands of the infected—with the elderly and those struggling with underlying health problems proving most vulnerable—straining hospitals to the breaking point, and leading policymakers to bring economic life to a halt to slow the contagion. Online, City Journal has reported on every aspect of the crisis—at times, running four or five pieces per day. Our home base of New York City became the virus’s first American hot zone, and as we go to press, remains locked down, with shuttered storefronts and eerily empty streets. Thankfully, the rate of new infections and hospitalizations has slowed more recently, suggesting that the worst of the current outbreak may be over locally.

This issue devotes much of its content to “World War Virus”—a phrase borrowed from biotech startup founder Balaji Srinivasan, who, early on, grasped the enormity of the challenge that the coronavirus and the respiratory disease it causes, Covid-19, posed to society. With our website covering the outbreak in a more immediate way, the magazine can take a longer view, seeking to assess the economic, cultural, and technological impact of this major event.

Nicole Gelinas’s “The Post-Quarantine City” explains why New York City’s budget is likely to take a far bigger hit from the pandemic than from two previous traumas: September 11 and the financial meltdown. Her essay lays out what city officials need to do to ensure that Gotham recovers and that crucial services don’t deteriorate. Among the steps she recommends: a sales-tax holiday, reimagining the capital budget, and freezing public-sector wages. New York will still need tens of billions of dollars of federal aid, Gelinas argues, but visionary local leadership has never been more important. In “The Crisis’s Impact on Budgets,” Steven Malanga describes the pressure that state finances will face in the months ahead, as years of fiscal irresponsibility take their toll.

Edward L. Glaeser’s “Cities and Pandemics Have a Long History” notes how the very density that drives urban dynamism, with talented people living close together and sparking innovation, has always posed a public-health danger, too: infections spread from proximity, just as ideas do. We will need a massive project to bolster our defenses against future outbreaks, Glaeser says—from supercharged biomedical research to the production of vast quantities of protective equipment for doctors, nurses, and first responders. Still, as Kay S. Hymowitz explores in “The Human Network,” our social natures will always make us susceptible to viral phenomena—from behavioral changes to pop-music hits to microbes.

Human innovation will eventually defeat Covid-19. As Bruno Maçães observes in “Covid-19 and the Question Concerning Technology,” the nations that deployed advanced surveillance and tracking—South Korea leading the way—have limited cases and fatalities without crashing their economies through quarantines and closures, little different from methods used a century ago to combat the Spanish flu. To adopt such innovations, however, will require Western nations to relax some strictures on privacy. James R. Copland’s “The Real-Life Costs of Bad Regulation” shows how bureaucratic foot-dragging at the FDA and the CDC have slowed treatment innovations. We need a nimbler regulatory regime, Copland says.

Mark P. Mills’s “Silicon vs. Viruses” sees the crisis as a potential tipping point in the acceleration of new technologies, from drones and robots to deliver needed treatments in unsafe areas to self-diagnostic tools that can speed up medical-response times. We’ll come through this pandemic better prepared to fight the next one, Mills maintains. In “Remote Work’s Time Has Come,” economist Matt S. Clancy shows how new communications platforms are making working and learning from home far easier, potentially leading to long-term changes in economic geography, postcrisis. Finally, virologist and biotech investor Peter Kolchinsky’s “A Cure for the Common Misconception” explains the scientific and economic underpinnings of what we all hope to see soon—a vaccine.

—Brian C. Anderson

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