Letter from the President

The world marks one year of the Covid-19 pandemic with both hope and apprehension as new coronavirus variants threaten to undo the halting progress of the past year, while new vaccines raise the prospect of an end to the crisis. Yet even when the pandemic does subside, we must reckon with the fact that the society that emerges will be profoundly different than the one that came before it. In myriad ways, daily life as we know it will have been fundamentally, and permanently, transformed. 

In an effort to document, contextualize, and understand the impacts of the pandemic as they unfolded, in April 2020, the Social Science Research Council launched the Virtual Research Center on Covid-19. This multifaceted initiative is an effort to bring this knowledge of the social sciences to bear on the various changes that have been prompted or hastened by the pandemic.  

Among these transformations was a rapid expansion of the use of surveillance technology in public health. Many of these efforts, while critical to slowing the virus’s spread, also raised difficult questions about how to balance privacy with transparency, the individual with the collective, and urgency with deliberation. To address these issues, in June 2020, the Council convened the Public Health, Surveillance, and Human Rights Network, an international group of forty leaders in industry, civil society, government, and academia who shared their diverse experiences and expertise in a series of discussions over the course of two months.

The virus’s rapid spread necessitated equally swift responses in the form of closures, mask mandates, and large-scale data collection. As the world hurtled toward a markedly new normal, the network meetings provided an opportunity to pause and consider the implications of the changes we were witnessing for privacy, human rights, and justice worldwide. Surveillance and the ‘New Normal’ of Covid-19 is a distillation of these cross-sector, transnational conversations.

This report, and the deliberations that inform it, would not have been possible without the support of an array of stakeholders. I am deeply grateful, first and foremost, to the members of the PHSHR Network for this work. Many thanks as well to the members of the SSRC staff, especially David A. Banks, Alexa Dietrich, Rebecca Tave Gluskin, Clara Hanson, Ronald Kassimir, Renee King, Duncan Omanga, Michael Miller, and Vina Tran. The network was made possible by a partnership with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Henry Luce Foundation. 

Scientists and technologists have rapidly developed critical tools that promise to end this pandemic. But implementing these tools effectively and equitably requires a deep understanding of the complex social, economic, and political processes undergirding diverse societies across the globe. While countries and communities have taken diverse tacks to addressing the pandemic, this moment is a stark reminder of our interconnectedness. 

Only by pooling our collective knowledge—across disciplines, across sectors, and across nations—will we overcome this crisis while advancing the common good and emerging stronger as a result. This report signals a first step towards those efforts.

Alondra Nelson
Social Science Research Council