Dr. Michael Touchton is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and Faculty Lead for Global Health at Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas at the University of Miami. Dr. Touchton studies the political economy of development and underdevelopment in a comparative setting. His areas of interest include how countries attract investment and promote economic growth, how they reduce poverty and promote human development, and how they redevelop following the departure of major industries. Much of his research occurs in Latin America, but he has spent considerable time addressing these questions in many other parts of the developing world and the United States. His research informs his work in the classroom, and his courses cover a wide variety of topics in comparative politics, and international relations from introductory to graduate levels.
In our “Five Questions” feature we ask scholars, activists, and public officials five short questions about their work (and other things).
You’ve started doing some research on the pandemic. But what do you work on when there’s not a global health crisis happening?
I study community governance, service delivery, and development outcomes in a wide variety of global contexts…primarily in Latin America, but also in the U.S. and sub-Saharan Africa. My latest projects focus on how city and regional governments engage the public in policy design, implementation, oversight, evaluation, and reform- especially in pursuit of public health. For example, I have several projects investigating the impact of different policy interventions on getting development projects to isolated or marginalized communities. One of them has taken me to Kenya eight times in the last three years, to work with local governments and the World Bank to bring health clinics, schools, wells, and irrigation projects to poor, rural communities.
How have you pivoted to working on pandemic-related research?
I’m part of the University of Miami’s COVID-19 Policy Observatory for Latin America, which presents up-to-date, over-time, state and national data on the public health policies adopted by governments to curb the pandemic. Latin America is the world’s hot-spot for COVID-19 infections and deaths. Although the region holds just over 8% of the world’s population, as of the end of June it accounted for over 50% of registered daily deaths. Approximately 12% these deaths are in Mexico (over 600 per day) and 22% in Brazil (approximately 1,000 per day).
The biggest challenge to working on pandemic-related research is that everything happens in real-time: the underlying events (policy changes, shifts in peoples’ movements, new cases, hospitalizations, deaths) happen every day. Keeping up with the data collection is already difficult; adding real-time analysis that evaluates public policies and their impact on health outcomes is overwhelming. Then, getting the message out surrounding the analysis is essential, but must also happen in real time. We have press conferences, webinars, and regular interviews to try to distribute the results of our data and analysis so that the Latin American public will know what’s happening in their countries, states, and cities. We also have regular working calls with governors in Mexico and Brazil, along with their staffs. These officials have the power to change public policies in favor of public safety and save lives during the pandemic. They don’t always listen to our advice, but we try hard to reach them. All to say, everything about research during a pandemic presents challenges and it all has to happen immediately to have the desired impact.
Does your work have implications for decision-makers? In what ways?
My colleagues and I designed the research on this project to provide direct information for decision-makers. The results show that some states and countries are doing quite a lot to protect their citizens and others, sometimes next door are not. The data and analysis imply that the leading states should keep up their efforts and the ones that are behind should try to catch up- acting late is better than not acting at all. As countries re-open, many national, state, and local governments need to implement policies to maintain distancing among the population, to require masks, as well as to test and trace cases. Simultaneously, governments need to do a better job with health messaging so that people comply with these policies and protect vulnerable populations.
What is something that you wish people understood better about COVID-19 prevention?
That lockdowns are useful to buy time: they don’t eliminate the spread of COVID-19, but they delay it so that governments can implement policies to test people, trace their contacts, and isolate those who are sick. Hospitals will be able to keep up with cases under this framework. In contrast, opening economies too quickly, not wearing masks, and not maintaining distance from one another will overwhelm testing capacity, make contact-tracing impossible and overrun hospitals. The result is what you see now in the U.S., Mexico, and Brazil: a recipe for disaster leading to an out-of-control pandemic and thousands of unnecessary deaths.
You live and work in Florida now, and Florida is one of the states really struggling to contain the pandemic. What is it like living in that kind of a hot spot right now?
Florida is in bad shape and Miami, where I live, is one of the hardest-hit areas. It’s scary to know that in a group of ten people, the chances of having at least one infected person is more than 70%. For a group of 25, it’s 96%. That means, on average, every classroom will have one infected student, every restaurant staff will have at least one infected worker, and there’s a good chance you’ve passed four or five infected people every time you leave the house. Testing is at capacity, there are delays in the results, and the hospitals are full. K-12 schools and universities in the state are all planning to re-open in August and September, too, which is going to make everything worse. I really worry about the elderly population in the state – I’m afraid a lot of older Floridians are going to die because of government carelessness and callousness toward these and other vulnerable populations. Wearing masks, testing, and tracing are critical and neither state nor local governments are doing a good job with that in Florida.