Notes on what the COVID-19 pandemic is changing and likely will never revert to “normal”

Notes on what the COVID-19 pandemic is changing and likely will never revert to “normal”
Meredeth Turshen 24 April 2020

This is a brief on what we can expect, based on what has happened in the recent past. It is an attempt to pull together observations from as many sectors as possible, rather than try to say something new. The impact comes from the accumulation of news, which shows the magnitude of the crisis.
Executive power grabs will not be relinquished. Not only national guardrails have been relaxed or dropped, but also international organizations are being weakened to extinction, beginning with the World Health Organization.
Criticism of WHO’s handling of the West African Ebola crisis was unrelenting and led to many recommendations to restrict the organization’s broad primary mission as the world’s guide on global health to the narrow one of first responder to outbreaks of contagious disease (Turshen and Gezmu 2017). We recognize this attack for what it is: an assault by the private health sector on state-led public health.
Education: College classes will remain online for the vast majority of subjects; shrinkage of the faculty will follow; tenure will be phased out; and academic freedom, beginning with ownership of one’s coursework, will be contested as colleges relinquish control to companies like Pearson. Faculty unions will suffer. These changes amount to a deskilling of the population—of both students and teachers. It is questionable whether the greater availability of distance learning will prove useful where there is no infrastructure of schools and universities. Of course, the best education, which is intensive, takes place in a classroom, and is expensive, will continue to be available to elites.
Independent bookstores face their final days. Amazon will profit. Few newspapers will survive the already drastic onslaught of online media consolidators like Facebook (the New York Times reported that 28,000 workers at news companies in the US have lost their jobs since the start of the pandemic). Sportswriters and business journalists find themselves outsmarted by machine-generated stories: a company called Narrative Science can feed data into a computer and print out a story in minutes.
Culture: Art exhibits and sales will shift online; many galleries and museums will close permanently (the mid-April estimate is nearly $5 billion in losses across 120,492 US arts nonprofits). The loss of jobs in all the arts will affect training at colleges and institutes; many will close permanently. Performers are trying to use online platforms, but already cash-strapped orchestras and ballet and opera companies are unlikely to survive. The fate of sports is beyond my ken.
Retail: Small convenience stores, laundries, and dry cleaners, watch and shoe repair shops, gift and clothing stores closed by lockdowns will disappear, to be replaced by corporate chains. Smaller workforce numbers will be reflected in the shrinking retail and service sectors. Amartya Sen (1981) showed in his study of the 1943 Bengal famine that people providing personal services are the first to lose work and fall into extreme poverty. Amazon will profit, again, as orders for all sorts of goods shift online.
Food: Corner bistros will be replaced by restaurant chains, ditto for bars, and the disappearance of small bistros and bars will mean less work for both the kitchen and wait staff. The closure of restaurants and commercial food purveyors is interrupting the food supply chain, affecting agriculture and therefore farmworkers. (Roughly half the food grown in the US was previously destined for restaurants, schools, stadiums, theme parks and cruise ships.)
Industry: Large companies will continue to acquire smaller firms, there will be more consolidation in every industry with fewer employees and fewer unionized workers. Do not underestimate the mechanization of work and the replacement of workers with robots and AI; experiments are already underway to replace the workforce. Over the past decade technology has disrupted (and in some cases, dismantled) high-paying jobs that required a college degree: the publishing, music, retail and service industries have all seen automation-related cuts in their workforce. Automation is replacing some jobs of college-educated workers in banks, financial firms, law offices and pharmacies. Even businesses that survive the coming depression will not hire back all the workers laid off. For those who retain their jobs, working from home will be the new norm, with risks and costs assumed by workers, like supplies and equipment, electricity and insurance, longer working hours and fewer paid holidays.
Housing: The effects of widespread unemployment will ripple through the housing market, as fewer people buy houses and more owners default on mortgages and more renters default on rent. The homeless population will expand.
Health & health insurance: Widespread unemployment reveals the folly of job-based health care insurance in the US. An increasingly privatized, for-profit system will resist nationalization, rationalization, and greater investment in public health (which is not as profitable as medical care—treatment earns, prevention doesn’t). Trump’s timeline on when to end the lockdown is based on the time needed for wealthy whites to protect themselves; the administration will allow a low-level epidemic to rage on among poor people of color, immigrants and refugees, the imprisoned and the homeless. (NB: regarding a vaccine—historical evidence suggests that this is not the solution to the COVID-19 pandemic: a vaccine against tuberculosis has existed since 1921, yet in 2018, 1.5 million people died from TB worldwide.)
Mental health: The need for mental health services will skyrocket, especially among women who worldwide make up 70% of the health and social sector workforce and among those who are victims of domestic violence. In general, the need for mental health services will increase for people who suffered isolation under lockdown and loss of beloveds whom they could not properly bury and mourn. Given the historical record, private services/private insurance will not meet mental health needs.
Health infrastructure: hospitals are closing as non-essential surgery is postponed. The new temporary facilities created for COVID-19 patients are just that, temporary. They will in no way increase the structural capacity of countries to meet the health needs of the poor, especially in rural areas. (We have evidence from the way Ebola was curtailed in West Africa [Abdulla and Rashid 2017].)
Transport: Look for a further decline in public transit systems; this will be a repeat of history, as in the dismantling of streetcar systems in mid-20th century. The oil & gas industries, which are currently experiencing lowered demand as a result of lockdowns, will fund the expansion of turnpikes, autoroutes, etc. They will also continue to oppose the development of electric vehicles and alternative sources of energy (wind and solar power).
As the pandemic solves the “migrant problem” by wiping out refugee camps, some sectors like agriculture will still need low-wage workers. One possible source of labor is the population of educated young people who trained for white-collar jobs and whose future is jeopardized by continuing trends in unemployment in the careers of their choice. (Most US college students, saddled by debt, already have experience of manual and blue-collar work, jobs which they take to pay tuition and loans.)
Inequality: Obviously, inequalities will widen—racial and gender as well as class inequalities. Gaps will widen between wealthy citizens of industrial countries and the poor of Africa and Asia. OXFAM warns that the pandemic could throw 500 million people into poverty worldwide. Malnutrition, the old scourge and underlying cause of most deaths among the poor, will stalk rich and poor countries alike.
Fightback: As we are all confined to our homes, unable to take to the streets to protest, legal protections of all kinds – from civil and political rights to environmental regulations – will be pulled back. The police powers of the state will be used against us if we dare to revolt. We must find new ways to organize and not rely solely on social media (Tufekci 2017).

To the Editor of the New York Times:

I beg to differ with Donald G. McNeil’s article, “Drug companies focus on the poor” (N.Y. Times June 25, 2019). McNeil claims that the pharmaceutical industry has lowered prices and is now helping poor countries buy needed medications. Two examples (out of thousands) illustrate the opposite. In 2018, U.S. officials threatened negative aid and trade consequences for Ecuador if the country introduced a resolution to the World Health Assembly to encourage breast-feeding; behind the scenes, the infant formula industry was lobbying the U.S. government to defeat any proposal that might threaten their profitable bottle-feeding products. In 2014, U.S. pharmaceutical companies and pro-business groups created the “astroturf campaign,” a fake grassroots movement to undermine South Africa’s efforts to lower drug prices through an amendment of its intellectual property law.

By using their power and influence to keep the costs of medicines high, and by systematically hiding their profits in overseas tax havens, pharmaceutical companies put poor people’s health at risk and deprive governments of billions of dollars in taxes that could be used to invest in healthcare. 

Forced Pregnancy, Eugenics, and Abortion

In these days of white supremacists talking about “the great replacement” – their fear that the white “races” will be overtaken by people of color – it is good of Clarence Thomas* to remind us of the ugly history of eugenics. Described misleadingly as the science of improving human populations by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics, eugenics became the policy of forced sterilization, segregation or miscegenation in 32 states. The eugenics movement claimed it was dedicated to ameliorating the human race; but, impatient with the slow pace of voluntary compliance, it turned to compulsory measures to achieve its true aims — a whitening of the gene pool and the elimination of disabilities, many of which were wrongly thought to be inherited. No one should forget the Nazi use of eugenic arguments to justify sterilizations, the killing of “defective” children and adults and the mass murder of “undesirable” people. But to reject birth control today because Margaret Sanger allied with the eugenics movement in the early history of the family planning movement is tantamount to rejecting the science of genetics today based on the aberrant history of eugenics.

Eugenical policy makers mandated forced sterilization, segregation or miscegenation to achieve their aims. Involuntary sterilization, as administered under eugenical sterilization laws, is now recognized as a violation of human rights. It bears no relation to voluntary abortion. The voluntary termination of pregnancy by medical or surgical methods is a decision taken by a woman, in consultation with her physician, for a range of reasons extending from fetal abnormality and endangerment of the woman’s life or health to economic or social determinations. The denial of abortion, however, amounts to state enforced compulsory childbirth and is comparable to coerced sterilization. Forced pregnancy contradicts reproductive freedom and sexual autonomy; it is a condition suffered exclusively by women; and it is a crime against humanity in international law, spelled out in the Rome Statute. The crime is rooted in longstanding ideals of autonomy and equality and the idea that reproductive choice is a basic human right. To endorse forced pregnancy by excluding rape and incest as exemptions in a vulgar attempt to get the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v Wade is an egregious violation of international human rights law and women’s human rights.

Forcing a woman to continue an unwanted pregnancy is reproductive coercion, defined as behavior that interferes with the autonomous decision-making of a woman with regard to reproductive health; coercion includes the threat of consequences for noncompliance with a demand, in this case punishment under the law. In El Salvador, the ban on abortion is total, imposing harsh criminal penalties on both women and physicians. Under current Salvadoran law, anyone who performs an abortion with the woman’s consent, or a woman who self-induces or consents to someone else inducing her abortion, or who is suspected of having had an abortion after seeking medical attention for serious pregnancy complications, can be imprisoned for up to eight years. In reality, most women end up being prosecuted and sentenced for aggravated homicide, which is punishable by up to 30 years in prison. Abortion bans that mandate punishment of the woman or of the physicians who perform the abortion are contrary to international law.

Clarence Thomas correctly points out that more African-American than white women request abortion, attributing the differential to racism. He is right, for the wrong reasons. Racism today is embedded, not in eugenical social engineering, but in the inexcusably higher rates of black than white maternal and infant mortality, the injustice of black/white wealth and income differences, in the injustice of different rates of homelessness and home ownership, in the unfairness of African-American families’ inability to find and afford nutritious food, and in the inequity of contrasting black/white unemployment rates. Black women demand reproductive justice—the right to bear children and raise them with dignity in safe, healthy, and supportive environments; it is the inability to do so that leads so many to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

Justice Thomas’s arguments about genetic manipulation are wrongly directed at abortion and better aimed at the fertility industry, which uses an ever-wider variety of techniques to create pregnancies tailored to the wishes of those who will raise the children. One figure gives some idea of how large this industry has become: the global market for invitro fertilization (IVF) was valued at $16.68 billion in 2018. Since the world’s first baby was conceived invitro in 1978, more than 8 million babies have been born with this technique. It is unimaginable that we would return to the days when there was no hope for infertile women and men. To justify the denial of the possibility of family on the grounds of social engineering is inconceivable

* Justice Thomas’s concurring opinion in the case of Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, Inc. can be read at

© Meredeth Turshen 5 June 2019


Out of Time, Out of Place: Primitivism and African Art

This article debates the proposition that artistic production mirrors humanity’s maturation from primitive superstition to scientific rationality. This effort sits at the intersection of demography, political economy and aesthetics. According to traditional demographic theory, primitive peoples are caught in a poverty trap of high birth rates, a condition inimical to industrialization, well-planned urbanization, universal education, women’s emancipation and cultural production. The analysis focuses on three dynamics: the demographic effects of mass migration on creativity: the trajectories of declining populations and their places in cultural hierarchies; and slavery and colonialism’s reduction to penury of skilled artists in pre-industrial societies. The method interrogates self-reinforcing trends of the canons of demography, political economy and aesthetics and the resulting concurrence on the path of progress, which assumes that art is a reflection of liberal historical advancement. The overarching argument of the article is that by setting the criteria and suppressing alternative accounts of the history of African art, these canons narrow and misrepresent our global cultural legacy. Background: sub-Saharan African art is classified as “primitive” according to the canons of art history, demography and political economy. This label is problematic because it conveys faulty demographic assumptions about sub-Saharan Africa and reflects the ways in which theories of human progress reinforce analyses underlying the designation of primitive. The proposition advanced is that these canons narrow, suppress alternative accounts of the history of African art, and misrepresent our global cultural legacy.
Journal of Arts & Humanities Volume 06, Issue 09, 2017, 16-22; DOI:


Labor force futures
30 June 2017
© Meredeth Turshen

Over the past decade technology has disrupted (and in some cases, dismantled) high-paying jobs that required a college degree: the publishing, music, retail and service industries have all seen automation-related cuts in their workforce. Automation is replacing some jobs of college-educated workers in banks, financial firms, law offices and pharmacies. Sportswriters and business journalists find themselves outsmarted by machine-generated stories: a company called Narrative Science can feed data into a computer and print out a story in minutes.
According to the New York Times (“New collar jobs are giving people with tech skills but no degree a chance at better pay”, June 29, 2017), programs now hire adults without college education for middle level jobs in technology. All of the people interviewed for the Times article were under age 35. What does the future hold for adults aged 45 to 55 looking for a job? (This is one of the groups hardest hit by the opioid epidemic.)
Boston Consulting Group predicts that by 2025 up to one-quarter of jobs will be replaced by either smart software or robots, while a study from Oxford University suggests that 35% of existing UK jobs are at risk of automation in the next 20 years.
What does this trend mean for the future of college education? (The Times article says one-third of US adults hold a four-year college degree.) There are two aspects to this question: one, as states withdraw funding from public colleges and the costs of tuition rise, what happens when automation replaces the kind of job that enabled high-school graduates to work their way through college? The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (August 18, 2016, says the decline in state funding of higher education has reached over 50% in Arizona and Illinois and over 30% in AL, ID, KY, LA, NH, NM, PA and SC).
The second aspect is, what kinds of work are college graduates going to find in the job market that will enable them to pay off student loans and establish independent lives? One possibility is work that has a direct impact on another human being; but only the current limits of robotics leave this opening. Machines may not yet do jobs that depend on personal interaction, but the Japanese are already experimenting with robots that care for the emotional as well as physical needs of the elderly in nursing homes (November 20, 2016 Work that combines high levels of dexterity with sophisticated decision making are being accomplished by systems like Johnson & Johnson’s Sedasys, already FDA approved, which can automate delivery of low-level anesthesia in colonoscopies at a fraction of the cost of an anesthesiologist. Jobs that require an ability to persuade, negotiate and think creatively may not be way off for the most advanced software; automation is no longer about replacing repetitive work that involved very little real-time decision making.
As a university professor, I worry about my students, many of whom work full-time jobs to pay tuition; they are counting on their degrees to provide passports to professional careers. Automation debases the college degree. Politicians who are voting to cut funding for public education, who disrespect the teaching profession, who ridicule the arts and humanities as irrelevant, are opting for a soul-less mechanical society of people who will be unable to distinguish fascism from freedom.

Multiple Dimensions

Meredeth Turshen, Ibou Ndoye & Starr Tucker-Ortega
Multiple Dimensions: 9 – 25 December 2016
Opening reception: Saturday, 10 December 6-8pm
Artists talk: Sunday, 18 December 3:30pm
hob’art cooperative gallery
720 Monroe Street E-208
Hoboken, NJ 07030
Hours: Th-Sun 1-5pm (201) 319 1504

Small group show @ hob’art


Meredeth Turshen, Coloratura, 2016 


Thursday, September 8 – Sunday, October 2, 2016

hob’art gallery, 720 Monroe Street, Hoboken, NJ

Reception: Saturday, September 10, 6-8pm

Gallery talk: Sunday, September 18, 3:30pm

The artists: Ann Kinney, Janet Kolstein, Meredeth Turshen

and Miriam Untoria