Analysis & Opinions

COVID’s Broader Impacts: Risks and Recommendations

While the world’s health and economy are the clearest victims of COVID-19, the pandemic has impacted nearly every aspect of society – from national security to international relationships. We asked several of our experts to share their thoughts on risks and/or recommendations that policymakers and the public should consider in the coming weeks and months.

Assessing Technology to Combat COVID-19

Lauren Zabierek  (Executive Director, Cyber Project) and Maria Barsallo-Lynch (Executive Director, Defending Digital Democracy Project)

Lauren Zabierek

As the United States considers reopening and resuming normalcy, many in the federal and state governments are looking at technology to assist in combating COVID-19. On April 17, the Cyber and Defending Digital Democracy Projects convened a special online Working Group consisting of senior experts from the Belfer Center, leading tech companies and organizations, Harvard Law School, Harvard Medical School, and MIT Lincoln Labs to assess  opportunities and issues in order to find some clarity and to provide recommendations to the myriad stakeholders who are grappling with how best to help stop the spread of COVID-19 and get Americans back to work. 

Use of technology comes with both risks and opportunities and technology solutions may assist governments and the public in overall awareness of efforts such as  scaling manual contact tracing efforts. We have identified a number of issues for decision-makers to consider. 

On the digital contact tracing front, states must integrate these operations into a larger digital and public-facing infrastructure that will take time and resources to build. Trust is key to gaining public acceptance of the larger contact tracing system, and security is uncertain. As many companies race to develop options, increased market penetration could impact uptake of official solutions, which could harm the overall effort. Further, some governments are looking at solutions from companies that may claim to offer some privacy protection, or offer none at all.  There is no overarching privacy law that guides companies’ collection, storage, and use of U.S. citizen data.  

Our forthcoming report will review the current options, address these risks, and provide recommendations for the stakeholders considering the use of technology in their public health plans.

Strengthening our Transatlantic Relationships Post-Pandemic

Nicholas Burns (Faculty Chair, Project on Europe and the Transatlantic Relationship and Future of Diplomacy Project)

Nicholas Burns

Transatlantic relations will be dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic and global economic crises for months and years to come. They are the greatest challenges Americans, Canadians and Europeans have confronted since the Second World War. We will be far stronger by joining forces with these allies rather than by going it alone.

On the pandemic front, our most effective strategy will be to work together on the search for a vaccine, on sharing of data and on making sure all of us are better prepared for the second wave and the next global virus beyond it. With that in mind, a humbled U.S. should seek to learn from Germany’s much higher level of testing and more successful public health measures.  

On the economic front, the European Union and the U.S. are the two largest global economies. Just as during the Great Recession, we should work closely together at the head of government level within the G-20 and G-7 bodies. Our leaders have failed to do so effectively since the start of the crisis. It is time to do so now. 

Finally, these cataclysmic events should be a wake-up call for the real dangers of the America First strategy of President Trump. His constant criticism and open disrespect of our closest friends in Germany, Canada, France and elsewhere has left us isolated and estranged from the very countries who could help us most at this critical moment. 

As U.S. Ambassador to NATO on 9/11, I will never forget how the allies stood by us at a very dark hour. Our place now, as we confront an even greater danger, should be by their side.  — Originally published in "How will COVID-19 Affect the Transatlantic Relationship?" 

Operationalizing Intelligence In Public Health Crises

Paul Kolbe  (Director, Intelligence Project)

Paul Kolbe

The role of the Intelligence Community (IC) in serving a public health mission must be re-evaluated and operationalized. This starts with consistent policy-level requirements to use all intelligence resources – open source and clandestine – to provide surveillance and early warning, support response, and to tie together facts with all-source analysis. 

Only when leadership is asking questions will the IC apply and sustain sufficient collection and analytic resources on this problem set; in particular, to illuminate what others seek to hide. Second, public health issues must be viewed as an enduring national security mission in the same light as nuclear proliferation, acute terrorist threats, or great power conflict. A pandemic represents not only a high consequence event, but also an event that is certain to happen. 

Finally, the cultural silos between the national security and public health universes must be broken down. Public health is eroded in poor security environments, and national security is eroded when public health fails. Each can and must support the other.

To assist in better understanding the role of intelligence during the COVID crisis, the Belfer Center’s Intelligence Project sponsors relevant events for the public over Zoom. Here are just a few recent examples:

  • “What Comes Next? Adapting Intelligence for a Post-COVID World” – Belfer Center Senior Fellow Sue Gordon
  • “Lessons from the Hunt for Terrorist WMD Applied to a Post-Covid World” - Belfer Senior Fellows Rolf Mowatt –Larssen and David Ignatius 
  • “Facts Over Fears: Leading in an Era of Global Threats and Uncertainty” – Belfer Center Senior Fellow James Clapper

Considering Public Purpose in the Time of COVID-19

Amritha Jayanti (Research Assistant, Technology and Public Purpose Project), Colin O'Leary (Harvard Medical School), and Michael Mina (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health) 

– This is an excerpt from a longer publication.

Amritha and Colin and Michael

From the rise of a pandemic to the collapse of national economies, the time we are living in is unprecedented. More than three million people to-date have been infected by coronavirus, and over 210,000 people worldwide have lost their lives….

With social distancing taking hold across the United States and the world, we are starting to look for the light at the end of the tunnel – hoping that things can one day go back to some version of “normal.” But the reality is that this pandemic, the economic downturn, and our choices during response will have lasting impacts, making almost certain that our future will be quite different from our past. And while the immediate concern is that of limiting fatalities and ensuring that our health system can survive a surge of cases, pandemic technologies—diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines—will shape the next phase of crisis response. This is a phase where we not only prevent the spread, but also build public resilience.

While some may argue that rapid biomedical development is our best option to fight the spread and build resilience against coronavirus, releasing undertested technologies – such as antibody tests or new vaccine candidates – may generate more overall harm to the public in the longer run, outweighing any sense of relief they seemingly provide in the short term….

The urgency of the current pandemic cannot eclipse the real ethical considerations that surround biomedical innovation, especially because the choices we make now will have both immediate and long-term implications. We must weigh the opportunities with the risks.

Through op-eds and media interviews, Center members regularly share their views on risks and recommendations that policymakers and the public should consider. A few examples 


“The last thing we should be doing is using the coronavirus as an excuse to roll back what little regulatory oversight currently exists to protect our health and environment.” — Fran Ulmer in "How the Coronavirus Epidemic Could Become Another Deepwater Disaster"

“We have compounded a disaster and a humanitarian catastrophe so far. Let’s right the ship. Let’s show that the United Nations and each of our national governments were built for moments like this." — Samantha Power in a Radio Free Europe interview

“The coronavirus shows just how fragile our system is, but we can strengthen it, reduce if not end our traditional dependence on unreliable foreign suppliers, and ultimately provide an insurance policy for our country by preparing for the worst.” — Mike Rogers in "Coronavirus reveals the vulnerable nature of our medical supply chain"

"Just as previous U.S. national security disasters, like Pearl Harbor and 9/11, led to overhauls of U.S. intelligence to ensure they never happened again, so the coronavirus will do the same.” — Calder Walton in "Spies Are Fighting a Shadow War Against the Coronavirus"
For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Zabierek, Lauren, Maria Barsallo Lynch, Nicholas Burns, Paul Kolbe, Amritha Jayanti and Colin O'Leary.“COVID’s Broader Impacts: Risks and Recommendations.” , May 5, 2020.

The Authors

Nicholas Burns