To tackle the COVID-19 crisis, there are five main things we need to do:
- Research to understand the disease and to develop new treatments and a vaccine.
- Determine the right policies, both for public health and the economic response.
- Increase healthcare capacity, especially for testing, ventilators, personal protective equipment, and critical care.
- Slow the spread through testing & isolating cases, as well as mass advocacy to promote social distancing and other key behaviours, buying us more time to do the above.
- We also need to keep society functioning through the progression of the pandemic.
Everyone can help stem the spread of COVID-19 by practicing proper hygiene and staying at home whenever possible. But if you want to do more, what can you do that’s most effective?
To maximise your impact, the aim is to identify a high-leverage opportunity to contribute to one of these bottlenecks that’s a good fit for your skills.
In this article, we’ll discuss some opportunities to work within each of these five categories, and some rules of thumb to work out which might be highest-impact for you, drawing from the rest of our research on high-impact careers. We also provide a long list of specific projects we’ve seen proposed.
We cover where to donate, in a separate article on donation opportunities to fight COVID-19.
We’ll also briefly consider whether to spend time working on COVID-19, or stick with your current path. The rest of the world’s problems have not gone away, so if you’re already working on something high-impact, you should most likely stick with it. The main purpose of this article is to help people who have already decided they want to work on COVID-19 to find something effective.
Because this is an area where a lot of diverse, specialised knowledge is relevant, it’s also easy to accidentally make things worse, so consider downside risks and expert advice before doing something big or controversial.
So how might you contribute to solving each of the five bottlenecks?
The specific opportunities we mention throughout this piece should not be taken as recommendations — due to the speed of the crisis, we have not carefully reviewed them. Rather, we included them simply on the grounds that we have seen the relevant project endorsed by an institution or individual with expertise or even just that we (as non-experts) have glanced at it and thought it seemed at least somewhat promising. The specific opportunities are best taken as a starting point for more investigation.
Key ways to contribute
1. Research into the disease, treatments and vaccines
We’ll eventually overcome this challenge most likely by developing a vaccine or effective antivirals. Few people have the skills to develop these treatments, meaning that if you do have the skills, it’s very likely to be your highest-impact way to contribute.
What about people without these skills? Besides supporting researchers indirectly, one other way non-specialists might be able to contribute in this area is by volunteering to be infected as part of vaccine trials. We haven’t heavily vetted this proposal, but for young and healthy people it might be a very valuable way of helping speed up the development of a vaccine.
It’s also important that we understand the nature of COVID-19 as well as we can (see our understanding of the current science). For example, we’re still not clear on:
- How COVID-19 is most often spread — e.g., through direct contact, touching surfaces with viral particles or through contact with respiratory droplets or aerosols
- What fraction of infected people are asymptomatic, and the relationship between symptoms and infectiousness
- Whether there can be long-term health effects if you get the disease and recover
Researching these questions could help us understand what interventions make the most sense and whether certain costly interventions — like shutting down cities — are worth it.
We’re not going to say much more about this area, because our impression is that most people with relevant skills have already considered working on COVID-19, and are in a much better position to work out what’s effective than we are.
One way to contribute to the research effort which may be easier for non-specialists (e.g. grad students in statistics or biology) to contribute to is vetting others’ research — checking the most influential papers and preprints closely and writing up any important weaknesses or errors. So many papers are coming out so quickly that peer review processes aren’t always able to keep up. People are making life or death decisions based on preliminary papers, so spotting important errors could be very valuable.
If you do find important errors, contact the authors to check with them before publicising your findings more widely (bearing in mind these researchers are likely to have an overwhelming amount of work right now). This idea is more promising if you know people in the field or have a reputation that means authors and other relevant actors are more likely to engage with you.
If you’re a computer scientist with training in AI, you could help develop text and data mining tools for medical researchers as part of the COVID-19 Open Research Dataset Challenge.
2. Determining the right policy response
Like biomedical research, getting the policy response right is crucial in overcoming this crisis, but it’s relatively hard for people not already in relevant positions to contribute.
That said, because of the unusually fast-moving nature of the situation, there may be more opportunity than usual for outsiders to help. In particular, they can focus on distilling expert advice and synthesizing research and data in a format that’s easy for policy-makers to quickly absorb.
We’ve seen great analysis and data coming from people outside of the policy world, including from amateurs, journalists, researchers in other fields, and others. In part this is because policy-makers are flooded with work, and so not able to follow every useful angle. For example:
More ideas for work in this category:
- Update Wikipedia pages. If you are able to follow news and papers closely and accurately, you can help keep the Wikipedia page on the COVID-19 pandemic updated for other people to reference, as well as add to articles (titled “2020 coronavirus pandemic in [Country X]”) on the situation and responses in specific countries.
- Translate materials. Valuable reports and other materials are being released quickly and aren’t always translated into different languages. For example, it was difficult for us to find primary source information in English regarding widely reported evidence from the blanket testing of residents in the Italian town of Vò, and unfortunately none of us know Italian. If you’re able to accurately translate technical language, you may be able to help a great deal by offering to translate reports and papers, as well as by translating Wikipedia pages. Because so much research is done in English, it might be especially helpful to translate materials from English into other languages so that local policymakers can have access to them.
3. Increasing healthcare capacity
Even given current suppression efforts, our healthcare systems in the US and the UK may become overwhelmed in the coming weeks or months. According to models from a March 16 paper from Imperial College London, we may need eight times as many critical care beds at the peak of the outbreak than will be available, given current surge capacity in the US and UK. Something similar seems to be true of most other western countries, and hospitals in several are already overwhelmed with cases.
The infection fatality rate seems likely to be sensitive to how overwhelmed the healthcare system is, since ventilation and ICU care can, where available, reduce the risk of death for severe cases. The magnitude of this effect is very hard to estimate, as we aren’t even sure of the infection fatality rate right now. However, assuming that 1% – 5% of COVID-19 patients could require ventilation or another form of critical care, it seems plausible that the fatality rate is likely to be several times higher if hospital capacity is overwhelmed.
An overwhelmed system also means that other diseases will go untreated, which will likely lead to worse health outcomes for many people and a significant number of additional deaths.
This means we need to scale up relevant healthcare capacity several-fold as quickly as possible.
Much discussion has focused on getting more ventilator capacity – this involves both a technical element (producing the devices) and having enough trained staff to operate them. There are also shortages of other important supplies, such as personal protective equipment like masks and gloves. We even saw a biomedical researcher on Twitter saying his work on COVID-19 could become compromised due to a lack of protective equipment.
Perhaps even more vital is increasing capacity to test for whether people have the infection, since this would let us isolate the right people while keeping the rest of society running as normally as possible. The countries that have been more successful in slowing the spread of the virus seem to have had more extensive testing.
There may be a broader range of opportunities to contribute in this area compared to research or policy. For instance, if you work in manufacturing, you might be able to convert capacity to produce supplies.
On the medical side, anyone working in healthcare is contributing, at the very least by freeing up other healthcare workers to work on COVID-19. Others may be able to increase capacity indirectly, by providing something like free and safe childcare for hospital workers or, in the UK, volunteering with the NHS.
Here are some projects that seem promising in this category:
If you’re an engineer
- If you know of a company that could make ventilators or ventilator components, you could connect them up with the UK government’s call here.
- If you have fabricant equipment, you could volunteer to work on some projects — especially scaling up production of personal protective equipment like masks and gloves — with Helpful Engineering.
- The Coronavirus tech handbook lists some projects for scaling up production of personal protective equipment as well as other hardware needs. (Although this is another area where it is possible to do harm — it’s important that the equipment be high quality, which may be difficult to achieve quickly.)
If you have medical training
If you’re a programmer or computer scientist
- One idea we’ve seen proposed for people in Big Tech is developing a cloud-based ventilator surveillance platform to track hospital ICU capacity and ventilator supply.
- In general, there are likely many potential ways for programmers and other technically skilled people to help, often by supporting other projects. See the Coronavirus Tech Handbook’s Tech communities page for more ideas.
4. Slowing the spread through public health advocacy
China, South Korea, Singapore, and other countries have shown it’s possible to dramatically slow the spread of the disease.
Even if we’re unable to suppress the number of cases as much as these countries, the more we do here, the more time we have to do everything else, reducing the overall amount of damage.
Many of the most important efforts to slow the spread need to be led by governments, such as rolling out mass testing and quarantining infected individuals and others they might have been in contact with.
However, anyone can contribute to slowing the spread by promoting social distancing and other key behaviours, such as 20 second handwashing, coughing/sneezing into your elbow, staying 6 feet away from others, and so on (see the NHS’s “dos and don’ts”).
We asked our advisors which measure they’d especially highlight, and they seem to agree that social distancing – encouraging people to stay home and otherwise reduce contact with others – is the crucial message to spread right now.
To do this, we need mass advocacy campaigns that are memorable and convincing. We can all lead by example, but this measure should especially be considered by anyone who has some kind of platform or loyal following, e.g. if you are a blogger, artist, expert, YouTuber, or some kind of celebrity. (For example see Arnold Schwarzenegger’s video, featuring donkeys Whiskey and Lulu.) Or, if you know someone like that, perhaps you can convince them to help spearhead such a campaign (and offer to help them out with it, especially if you have skills in design or marketing).
Be careful, however, that you focus on promoting the most needed measures — advocating ineffective or less effective behaviors could crowd out messaging about the most important ones and do more harm than good (as we discuss more below).
You can also contribute by inspiring people and otherwise making it easier for them to stay home for long periods of time, by providing entertainment, work-from-home advice, exercise advice, and so on.
Note that some degree of distancing is likely to need to be maintained for months, so these campaigns will need to be sustained. Finding ways to help people stay motivated to keep up these measures as time goes on could prove very valuable.
5. Keeping society running and supporting people on the front lines
We need to do all of the above while keeping essential services going amidst the risk of infection.
Delivery drivers, online retailers, pharmacists, and supermarket workers are essential in helping us get through this pandemic, since they allow people to get the food and supplies they need while staying as isolated as possible.
Taking a job anywhere in the supply chain, and being conscious of ways to reduce infection, is a way to earn income while also contributing.
Likewise, we need to keep other ‘essential services’ operating.
Anyone can also contribute by assisting those on the front lines in whatever ways they can.
Perhaps you know someone who works in vaccine research – could you bring them a box of supplies so they can better stay isolated? Often you can do more by helping indirectly than by working on the issue yourself.
Where might you fit in?
We’ve put the five areas above very roughly in order of priority, but all of them are pressing and needed, so the biggest factors in determining what’s best for you are probably:
- The quality of the specific opportunities open to you, and how high-leverage they seem
- Which option is the best fit for your skills
On the first factor, you want to evaluate how much of one of the five key bottlenecks you might be able to solve, if the project succeeds (in expectation). For instance, if you’re working on slowing the spread, how many people might you be able to encourage to practice social distancing? If you’re working on developing a vaccine, roughly how much might you be able to accelerate the process? You can then compare this to the amount of time and money that needs to be invested in the opportunity.
This is difficult to evaluate, but try to get a rough sense of the potential scale of the upside if you succeed, and the likelihood of success.
You could also consider other heuristics, like whether experts think it seems like a good idea, and how neglected it seems. If thousands of people are already taking an opportunity, it’s going to be harder to have a big impact.
On the second factor, a rough rule of thumb is to consider what skills, connections, credentials, and other resources (career capital) you have that are rarest compared to the rest of the population – if you’re using relatively rare career capital, it’s more likely you’ll have a comparative advantage in that opportunity and not be quickly replaced by others. You should also consider what you’ll find most motivating.
So, a rough process for deciding could be:
- Generate a list of specific options, by: (i) considering how you might help with each bottleneck listed above (ii) browsing lists of specific opportunities (iii) considering how your most unusual career capital might be applied.
- Compare these options in terms of how pressing the bottleneck is, how high-leverage the opportunity is for helping with that bottleneck, and your degree of personal fit with the opportunity.
You can use our article on making career decisions if you’d like more tips for making comparisons.
Avoid making things worse
It’s difficult even for experts to understand all or even most aspects of the pandemic, because there are so many fast-moving parts and so many different relevant fields, which often involve technical knowledge.
This means that this is an area where it’s easy to do more harm than good. For instance, we’ve seen people possibly making things worse by:
We’d encourage people looking to contribute to be very mindful of where their expertise lies, defer to relevant experts in other areas except in unusual cases, and in general be cautious about promoting original ideas when they might not understand all the relevant considerations.
We’d also encourage people to try to look for ways to contribute that don’t require significant input from those already responding to the crisis e.g., providing data in a digestible format or by encouraging people to engage in social distancing. (Though we would still encourage people to check their ideas with experts before starting new projects on a big scale.)
See our full article on ways people trying to do good sometimes accidentally make things worse, and how to avoid them.
Should you work on COVID-19 or something else high-impact?
Unfortunately, all the other pressing problems in the world have not gone away, and if you’re already in a job that you think is high-impact, it can be difficult to decide whether to continue with that or to switch to working on COVID-19.
We think there are strong reasons for our community of readers to spread out over pressing problems. Our incredibly rough take is that, although this issue is not neglected, it could be worth about 1 in 25 people who are interested in effective altruism to work on COVID-19 for some period of time. (The case is stronger if you normally focus on ‘near-termist’ issues, such as global health.)
This means that you should perhaps switch if you’re in the 1 in ~25 members of the effective altruism community relatively best suited to working on it. Here are some things that could indicate that’s you:
- You have highly relevant skills or other career capital, such as useful connections, knowledge of vaccines or public health policy, or experience in government institutions
- You’re not currently in a career path you think is high-impact and a good fit
- You are highly motivated to work on COVID-19 (e.g., are you the person in your group telling your friends about the latest research? We know one or two people like this.)
- You’ve identified an especially promising opportunity
- You’re able to switch temporarily in order to take the best opportunities in the area, and will then be able to go back to other projects without derailing your long term career plans
- You’re in a relatively safe position with your health, finances, and career
For example, we’ve decided to spend some time as a team working on COVID-19, because we have some unusual resources (like connections and a platform), we’re able to switch temporarily and then go back to other projects without losing too much ground, and we’re highly motivated by work on the subject.
If you don’t think you should switch, that might be a difficult decision. But this pandemic shows how rapidly a disaster can materialise (and how underprepared we are for them), and we still need people to prepare society for the future disasters we might face, including future pandemics that could even worse.
It will also be best for some people to focus on how work in other problem areas can best weather the storm – COVID-19 may pose challenges for many organizations, such as issues with remote working or perhaps future funding uncertainties.
And if you do think you should switch? There are large gains to acting earlier rather than later in this area due to the disease’s rapid (and accelerating) spread. So if you’re going to work on COVID-19, the sooner, the better.
Long list of opportunities to work on COVID-19
Below is a list of opportunities to help the global response to COVID-19. The list is focused on opportunities in research, policy, technology and startups. We focus on opportunities in the US and UK, because most of our audience is based there.
Note we have not carefully reviewed the organizations and opportunities on these lists. As with the projects mentioned throughout the article, we constructed these lists based on either seeing these projects endorsed by institutions or individuals with expertise or by simply glancing at them ourselves and thinking that they seemed promising.