Teaching Economics of Covid-19
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By Ceyhun Elgin, Bogazici University, Turkey
In this note, I share my experience of designing and teaching an undergraduate course on the economics of COVID-19.
Since January 2020, The COVID-19 pandemic has spread to all countries and territories in the world, causing more than 23.1 million cases and about 800 thousand deaths as of August, 22nd 2020. (Roser, Ritchie, & Ortiz-Ospina, 2020). It has foremost created a public health crisis, but this has also led to an economic crisis. Almost all countries in the world have gone into an economic recession; however, the magnitude of the economic downturn varies significantly across countries.
Although there are some contradictory results in the literature, there are some findings that the demand for education is countercyclical, i.e., it increases above and beyond its long-run trend during economic recessions (Barr and Turner, 2013). This may or may not be generalized globally; however, my experience as an economics professor suggests that the demand for an economics major is also countercyclical. Students get substantially more interest in the economic issues around them during economic downturns and demand that their courses help improve their understanding of the economy. Unfortunately, not all courses or instructors are ready to satisfy these demands of the students.
In fact, I remember teaching Intermediate Macroeconomics at the University of Minnesota back in Fall 2008 at the peak of the global financial crisis. As expected, at that time, students were extremely eager and motivated to learn the causes and dynamics of the crisis. To be honest, as a third-year Ph. D. student, I was not well prepared to fully deliver what they wanted. I remember closely following the textbook and talking about the total factor productivity changes as the primary source of business cycle movements and long-run economic growth, which really did not make much sense to the students or even to me.
In May 2020, following the call of the chair of the Economics Department for faculty members to offer elective courses in the summer school, I volunteered to teach an elective course in economics during the Summer Term of Bogazici University in Turkey. I have already taught several elective courses in different institutions, including Economic Policy, Research Methodology in Economics, Public Economics, International Economics, Turkish Economy, Labor Economics, Quantitative Analysis of Macroeconomics, Economics of the European Union, Growth and Development, Poverty and Discrimination, etc. As I already have well-designed lecture notes for these courses, it would have been much easier for me to teach one of these; however, I really did not want to repeat the shame of the Fall 2008 and wanted to offer a course that helps my students to understand the current economic developments.
The course was well-received in the university, and 64 students registered for it during the regular registration period. Eventually, the number of students has gone up to 66 after the add-drop period. The first day of classes was Tuesday, August 4th and the last of day classes will be September 14th.
As my plans for offering the course were finalized in early June, there was really not much time to prepare. Thankfully, with different co-authors, I have been doing research on different economic aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic since mid-March. Moreover, being COVID-19 positive back in April further sparked my interest on the issue. These efforts have resulted in several different pieces of working papers of mine and it also allowed me to read a large portion of the public health and economics literature on the disease. Fortunately, neither my co-authors nor I are alone with this interest, as the number of economics papers on COVID-19 has been growing at an exponential rate since late March 2020. Indeed, searching for papers containing the word COVID in the REPEC paper depository gives a result of 4281 papers as of August 22nd, 2020. Moreover, CEPR, a renowned European research center, has decided to build a new free and online journal titled Covid Economics, Vetted and Real-Time Papers that publishes papers on the intersection of economics and COVID-19. As of August 21st, 2020, the journal has published 43 issues with at least four papers in each issue. Moreover, the Core Team has designed a web-page specifically to include teaching resources for the economics of COVID-19. Similarly, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis has a website on teaching COVID-19 economics.
The summer course lasts for six weeks in total and we meet three times a week with the students, each meeting lasting for two lectures of 50 minutes. Due to the pandemic, the course is delivered remotely via Zoom, and students are graded based on their performances in different grade components. These are class participation (5%), three reading reports (24%), group presentation of an academic paper (35%), and a take-home final exam (36%). Attendance is not mandatory but strongly recommended. However, active participation in in-class discussions is needed for the first grading component. Moreover, students are also required to read, summarize and criticize one assigned paper in every other week (so three papers in total) and also form a group of 1 to 4 students and present a paper during one of the lectures. Finally, there will also be a take-home final exam at the end of the semester.
In terms of the content, the course consists of two parts. In the first part, which lasted for two full weeks of the summer term (therefore corresponds to full four weeks of a regular fall or spring term), I basically shared several recent datasets with the students and also have presented findings of different papers I co-authored. To this end, first, we have started going over the evolution of the pandemic and we have investigated the evolution of the infection and the fatality rate throughout the world. Moreover, as an introduction to the economics of COVID-19, we also have gone through the World Economic Outlook of the IMF (published in April 2020 and revised in June 2020) and the Global Economic Prospects of the World Bank (published in June 2020). Next, we have dived into the analysis of the economic policy responses of national governments. Both IMF and the ILO have useful policy trackers and on top of these, our paper (Elgin, Basbug and Yalaman, 2020) quantified the policy responses in a comprehensive dataset covering responses in different policy dimensions (fiscal, monetary and balance of payment policies) for 168 economies. In one of the lectures, we also e-visited the Turkey office of the World Bank, where the World Bank local staff presented us the Turkish Economic Monitor before it was made public later on that day.
In the second part of the course, which started in the third week, students have started to make their group presentations, where each presentation is expected to last about 20-25 minutes followed by an in-class discussion. I provided a long list of papers (most of which are not yet published) in the syllabus and the presented papers have been chosen by the groups on a first-come-first-served basis throughout the first two weeks of classes. Group presentations sparked a great interest not only by presenters but also by the audience and we have lively discussions after each presentation. The order of the presentations is thematic and closely follows the reading list provided in the syllabus. Accordingly, its first section, titled as Economics and Economies during COVID-19, contains papers investigating the aggregate economic impact of the pandemic generally written from a cross-country perspective. There are several papers in this section that, for example, investigate the role of the political regimes in countries’ responsiveness, how the helicopter money policy is used to compact the crisis, or how the informal sector size may determine the size of the fiscal policy packages adopted by governments. The second section focuses on the gender aspects of the pandemic. The gender gap interacts significantly with the economic effects of the pandemic. There are several papers in this section that look at the impact on the child-care market, gender equality and discrimination, as well as the gender gap in mental well-being. The third section is on the labor market effects. The effect of the pandemic on unemployment as well as other labor market variables is the main concern here. Moreover, the rise of remote work is also discussed here. The ability to work remotely is substantially different across different jobs and individuals and this will likely be another source of income inequality during the pandemic. The next section is on other effects including financial effects, direct effects of government stringency measures and effects on inequality. Finally, the last section emphasizes public health aspects. Socioeconomic determinants of infections and mortality, cultural differences in the spread of the disease, optimal quarantine and testing policies are among the topics that are discussed within this section.
Since most of the higher education instruction throughout the world has switched to remote teaching in the middle of Spring 2020, most professors have been complaining about the declining level of attendance and interaction in economics courses, and as an instructor who has taught undergraduate public economics, and graduate international economics in Spring, to be honest, I also was one of them. However, during the summer term, I am extremely satisfied by the level of attendance and participation in the remote lectures. I honestly don’t think that my teaching quality and skills have changed significantly from Spring to the Summer term. That is why I believe that the main reason behind this interest is that we extensively cover current issues during the lectures and students really have a high motivation to improve their understanding of what currently happens around them. Surely, one cannot expect that all economics courses in the 2020-2021 academic year to include discussions of the economics of COVID-19, however, as I have outlined above, my experience suggests that students’ interests are further sparked when they actually see the usefulness and relevance of what they are being taught.
Barr, A., Turner, S. E. (2013). Expanding Enrollments and Contracting State Budgets: The Effect of the Great Recession on Higher Education. ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 650 (1): 168–193.
Elgin, C., Basbug, G., Yalaman, A. (2020). Economic policy responses to a pandemic: Developing the Covid-19 economic stimulus index. COVID Economics, Vetted and Real-Time Papers, 3, 40–53.
Roser, M., Ritchie, H., Ortiz-Ospina, E. (2020) – Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Statistics and Research. Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from https://ourworldindata.org/coronavirus on Aug 21, 2020.
From: pp.10-11 of WEA Commentaries 10(3), August 2020