Building an effective COVID-19 response: A guide for future research

Posted on:
People wearing masks walking along a crowded sidewalk
Photo: Xackery Irving |

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in incalculable losses for millions of Americans, particularly among low-income communities and communities of color. As decision-makers focus on addressing the urgent public health threat presented by the virus, major questions remain on how to best support the country’s social and economic recovery after the immediate crisis has resolved.

How can policy leaders best support their communities in the face of the joblessness, educational setbacks, and trauma inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic? Rigorous evidence will play a critical role in helping us understand which policies and programs will truly work to help communities recover in the wake of COVID-19.

The COVID-19 Recovery and Resilience Initiative

J-PAL North America’s COVID-19 Recovery and Resilience Initiative aims to create a playbook of evidence-based policies to help communities recover in the wake of COVID-19. As decision-makers grapple with an unprecedented new reality, rigorous evidence is perhaps more necessary than ever to understand which policies and programs work.

To begin this effort, J-PAL North America asked our network of academic researchers which research questions, if answered, have the potential to help significantly advance our understanding of how to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. Together, we’ve curated a learning agenda outlining where rigorous research has the potential to be most effective in supporting low-income workers, improving health care access and delivery, and advancing equitable education solutions in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A blog series over the next three weeks will offer a deeper analysis of how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated historical and structural inequities across the policy areas of education and youth; jobs, labor, and the social safety net; and health care delivery. It will also present specific examples of how rigorous research can help bring evidence to bear to advance truly effective policies and programs. This learning agenda is not intended to be an exhaustive list of questions, but rather a jumping off point for further research and consideration.


While the COVID-19 pandemic is a national crisis, not all communities have been similarly impacted by this tragedy. The pandemic has laid bare structures that have long worked to benefit wealthy and white individuals and limit opportunity to people of color and low-income communities in the United States.

The failure of this country’s institutions to adequately protect and provide for low-income communities and people of color is starkly evident in the data across health, labor, and education. Black and Hispanic communities in the United States have been disproportionately harmed by the public health impacts of COVID-19, experiencing higher rates of both infection and death than white populations. Job and wage losses due to COVID-19 have hit low-income, Black, and Hispanic workers harder than white workers or workers with higher salaries. In education, widespread school closures are exacerbating pre-existing racial and economic academic achievement gaps between students, as students from low-income families and students of color are less likely to be receiving personalized instruction and accessing virtual supports during the pandemic.

Why rigorous research?

Policymakers and sector leaders are being presented with a new set of challenges that they’ve never encountered before. Rising to meet these challenges will require new research to look at the big picture questions on how to address multiple interconnected dimensions of the pandemic.

Some questions might challenge the viability of long-standing policy assumptions, just as the tragedies of the pandemic have raised questions about the efficacy of many of our current social systems to protect the communities who have been most impacted by COVID-19. However, in light of this crisis, policymakers have also been pushed to experiment with new policy ideas that were once considered out of reach or outside the political mainstream. For instance, universal basic income has long been considered by many in the United States to be a fringe and impractical policy consideration. Following the use of stimulus checks to reduce the financial strain of COVID-19, universal basic income has entered the public consciousness as a more palatable policy solution.

Researchers can rigorously pilot and test these innovative policies on small and large scales to help decision-makers understand which programs are most effective and why. As policymakers build longer-term policy plans to recover from the pandemic, results from rigorous evaluation will be critical to inform the process and keep policymakers from flying blind in this unprecedented policy territory. Local, state, and national decision-makers can turn to rigorous evidence to make informed decisions on whether to implement new policies or scale existing programs that have real-world benefits for communities.

The existing evidence 

Despite the unprecedented reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the policy challenges exacerbated by the pandemic are not new. Decision-makers can turn to existing evidence-based solutions to address some of the immediate challenges presented by COVID-19.

Our COVID-19 Evidence Portal provides guidance on how to increase access to the social safety net, expand access to health insurance and care, and improve online learning practices. However, while the existing evidence provides helpful lessons, there is still much more to learn about how to grapple with the longer-term impacts of the pandemic.

Research moving forward: where can research make an impact?

J-PAL North America aims to catalyze new, rigorous research to create a playbook of evidence-based strategies to address the multiple policy dimensions of the COVID-19 crisis. When discussing the research response to the COVID-19 pandemic, our academic network focused on the policy areas of labor, health, and education. The conversations centered on how rigorous research might be able to best support students, workers, and patients in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. Some of the high priority questions identified include:

Education and youth

  • How has virtual learning impacted students’ learning outcomes? Further, how can districts and education technology platforms improve data collection so that educators can better target personalized supports to individual students?
  • If schools must bring students back to campuses, how might they go about re-opening safely? How can we target resources to students who most need support?
  • How can schools address student trauma incurred during the COVID-19 pandemic and better support students’ mental health needs and socioemotional development?
  • How can educators minimize the widening of the achievement gap?

Jobs, labor, and the social safety net

  • How can policymakers support those who are unemployed?
  • What programs can improve the job-search process?
  • As jobs are reallocated post COVID-19, where will opportunities for workers arise, and how can we match low-income workers to new high-quality job opportunities?

Involvement in the criminal justice system is closely tied to individual labor market outcomes. High priority questions relating to criminal justice include:

    • How can communities effectively support individuals who have been released from incarceration?
    • Do decarceration strategies adopted during the pandemic have positive outcomes in a post-pandemic setting?

Health care delivery

  • How can health officials improve access to health care for people who experience major health care barriers, including people who are uninsured or experiencing homelessness?
  • How can health officials increase take-up of positive and preventative health behaviors?
  • How can health officials increase trust in health institutions?

Authored By