A Question of Foreground and Background

Number infected, number dead. These are the numbers we have become accustomed to seeing every day, and they are what have been driving the decisions to impose strict quarantine measures all over the world.

5 more million Americans file for unemployment, small businesses requesting an unprecedented number of loans. These notifications we have been hearing every week, and they are continuing to fuel the push for a reopening of society and the economy.

While the medical concern has thus far taken priority (likely for good reason considering how much is still unknown about the virus), the situation is turning due to the presence of its twin sibling: the social and economic concern.

In thinking about these aspects, let’s borrow the psychological concept of background and foreground. Taken from the American Psychological Association: “in perception, the distinction between the object of attention, which is in the subjective foreground, and the vague texture of the background, which is less likely to receive individual attention.”

Thus far, the foreground effects are the number infected and dead (and the number of unemployed, one might say, as they have been striking). The foreground effects are so emotionally striking that they rightly warrant an immediate, strong response. Apart from the right recognition that life is sacred and should be preserved, one reason that the number of infections and deaths are in the foreground is that they are easily measurable. They can be represented in clean arcs and curves like those made in calculus class. As a consequence of this strong response, however, occurring in the background has been the complete transformation of the world’s social and economic life.

While the background effects are usually more difficult to measure, and their impact lags, how are we supposed to know when we should flip our perspective, interchanging the background and foreground image? At the beginning it feels like a cruel, almost unnatural thing to ask; and yet, we realize that the background contains very real consequences. For this aspect alone, Trump’s characterization of the virus as “a hidden enemy” appears to be an apt term.

I’ve made a Venn Diagram to think about this dynamic.


There are certain aspects of life that are difficult, if not impossible to quantify.

  • Social Fabric, Relationships: What will the absence of physical community and religious gatherings do to the social fabric? Immersive technology and isolation on relationships?


Despite having real-time data, lightning fast communication, and 21st century computer models programmed by the sharpest minds, often the best predictor of what will happen tomorrow is what happened today.

  • Bankruptcies/Livelihoods Destroyed: There will be thousands of ventures, into which people who have poured a lifetime of time, talent and treasure, that will vanish. We will not know for a while the extent of this damage.

  • Duration of Unemployment: While the sheer number of unemployed is gleaned fairly quickly, how long these numbers will last remain unknown for a while.


  • Role of Government: Whether at the state or federal level, how will the role of government change? After previous national crises such as the Great Depression and 9/11, major new government programs and practices arrived.

  • Education Losses: How effective is online schooling, especially for the youngest and most needy? As more parents find themselves without a job or a reduced income, what will be the effect on university enrollment levels? How will this affect the future U.S. labor market?

  • Technology Addiction: We still know very little about our relationship with technology, and we have now embarked into an even more digitalized world.

As we move forward, continue to take stock of the situation by flip flopping the background and foreground, keeping in mind that the picture is not one dimensional.