Public discourse has focused on the issue of how the COVID-19 outbreak and the subsequent stay-at home orders have affected economic activity. Micah Pollak spent a lot of time researching the question and creating visualizations that helped to place the pandemic within its context. Pollak is an Associate Professor of Economics and Director of the Center for Economic Education and Research, School of Business and Economics of Indiana University Northwest in Gary. His research interests range from data analytics to regional and health economics to financial economics. Pollak believes that social scientists are now able to use the vast amount of data that is available at almost all times during the pandemic to identify changing trends. He has used his teaching experience to share his findings with the public through graphs or other visualizations on Twitter. Scott Knowles, who is a historian of disaster and risk at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology was interviewed by Pollak. They spoke on the daily podcast COVIDCalls. Knowles shares his research with guests and discusses the devastating effects of pandemic. This interview was part of an ongoing collaboration by American Scientists with COVIDCalls. It has been edited in order to maintain clarity and length.
How has this pandemic affected the economy of the country?
In some ways, we’re seeing a lot more growth than we thought possible because there was no permanent change. Other areas, like labor, are showing big results. I don’t believe it’s an accident that headlines in national newspapers have focused on labor, such extensions of benefits or unemployment insurance. This is because I believe the long-term effects of the pandemic will be greatest.
Think about the conversation last year surrounding the relief payments for the United States.
The relief payments were an equalizer because there was a minimum amount to which you could depend on. There is strong evidence they had a significant influence on peoples’ livelihoods. They not only kept people out of poverty but also saved many lives.
I’m confident that the payments are going to be the central focus of future research. In a small sense, it was like a miniexperiment for universal basic. And that, I believe, changed people’s perceptions on income and how the government could assist them.
What form of conventional wisdom was pushed or provoked by the pandemic?
Early on, every country or region that was affected by a pandemic had an immediate reaction. “That’s going gonna kill your economy!” Many economists believed this to be false. The pandemic was making our economy worse. This economic problem can only be solved by fighting the pandemic. You must stop the spread so that people feel at home again.
How was the pandemic affecting the Indiana economy where you work?
Northwest Indiana has a lot to offer in the way of manufacturing and steel mills. Steel mills remained as open as possible. There were occasions when an outbreak occurred and certain sections had to be shut down.
Before COVID was created, we were involved in a Trade War. This created difficulties for Northwest Indiana because we exported lots of steel and soybeans. The trade war still continues. We are not seeing rapid job growth here. We’re still very far below the prepandemic level. I believe that this surprise a lot of people, especially since we’re not talking just about food service jobs. We’re also talking manufacturing jobs or higher-paying jobs.
Tell us how you have approached complex data sets, and turning them into something that anyone can understand.
My goal was to create visualizations which help people understand the data. One of my very first visualizations, which created a lot of controversy was the comparison of flu deaths in Indiana by week with deaths from COVID, just by placing them side by side. People voiced objections online. We don’t do the flu and COVID tests in the same manner. The vaccine we do have for flu is different from the one we have for COVID. So I refined the visualization and said, “Okay, this part is not appealing to you, but we can change it a little and make it more compelling.” It’s an iterative procedure.