Democracy and the Pandemic: Faculty Op-Eds Raise, and Answer, Urgent Questions

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In one article for USA Today, associate professor Guian McKee of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs takes a close look at the history of U.S. hospitals as businesses, explaining some of the unique challenges this model faces in a pandemic.

Meanwhile, in the Washington Post, historian and postdoctoral research associate Jessica Levy lays out past workers’ fights for safety regulations, and lessons learned for workers deemed “essential” today. In the New York Times, Andrew Kahrl, the Democracy Initiative’s interim co-director for academic affairs and a professor of history and African American studies, looks at how current restrictions on public spaces revive specters of race-based discrimination at public pools, parks and beaches.

All of these pieces and many more – op-eds published in local, national and international newspapers ranging from the New York Times to the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot to a German newspaper – are part of a concerted effort by the UVA Democracy Initiative to put its experts and scholarship where they are most needed: right in the middle of public debate.

Called “Democracy and the Pandemic,” the series has and will continue to bring UVA faculty and community voices directly into media outlets across the country, providing crucial context, research and information to a public hungry for facts and reliable analysis. 

“It is critical that we get our scholarship out into the world and into civic debate, and the op-ed format – and the diversity of publications in which these pieces have found a home – is helping us reach a wider audience,” said Melody Barnes, Democracy Initiative co-director for policy and public affairs. 

Barnes, Kahrl and other faculty involved with the Democracy Initiative started the series after the pandemic forced the cancellation of talks and events planned this year.

“The Democracy Initiative seeks to promote, facilitate and host public events and forums for the exchange of ideas, and publications and digital media are one of the best ways to do that right now,” Kahrl said. “It was clear from the outset that this pandemic was going to have implications for every aspect of democracy, and every research area our faculty members touch on.”

The articles, listed fully below, are written by UVA faculty members, researchers and students, and Barnes and Kahrl are also working with the UVA Equity Center to involve Charlottesville community members and highlight local issues. Other topics include Hong Kong’s fight for democracy, problems the pandemic has exposed in America’s system of federalism, and how historic plagues influenced politics in medieval Germany and ancient Athens.

“Historical pieces, like those on Athens and Germany, are interesting on their own, but also give us a lens through which to view what is happening right now, and what might happen going forward,” Barnes said.

Then, she said, there are important policy topics, like McKee’s piece on the health care industry.

“He has thought, researched and written a lot about American health care and he is currently working on a book,” Barnes said. “Hopefully, this will bring new readers to his work, and bring it to the attention of policymakers, because the issues he raises are crucial for politics, health care and business in the U.S.”

So far, the response has been enthusiastic.

“It’s been rewarding,” Barnes said. “I am especially excited that we are getting this kind of uptake from a broad array of publications. It shows there is a strong interest in this work, and significant questions and curiosity about what is happening to democracy through the lens of the issues of the day.

“The debate is only the better for having more communities and public audiences hearing from scholars, and vice versa. We want to create that debate across sectors, bringing attention to the challenges, crises and opportunities we are facing, and start to shift the culture of democracy to one of informed, civil, robust debate where everyone recognizes that they have a voice.”

Many more articles are in the works, on topics ranging from reopening schools to vote-by-mail and the 2020 presidential election. Kahrl and Barnes also wrote an introduction to the series, called “A Global Contagion and Chronic Threats to Democracy.”

Articles published so far include:

Media Contact

Caroline Newman

Associate Editor Office of University Communications