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The course is the largest ever administered by Wharton, with 1,800 students enrolled.

Credit: Chase Sutton

The Wharton School's six-week course focusing on the implications of the coronavirus on global business met for the first time on Wednesday.

The half-credit course, titled “Epidemics, Natural Disasters, and Geopolitics: Managing Global Business and Financial Uncertainty,” is the largest Wharton course ever administered, with 1,800 students enrolled. Around 1,300 participated in the course's livestream, professor Mauro Guillén said.

The first class analyzed policies intended to combat the coronavirus and evaluated their potential economic detriments. Students said they enjoyed that the class included students from multiple undergraduate schools and welcomed the course's interdisciplinary focus.

The March 25 lecture featured three talks hosted by Penn faculty members: Wharton Dean Geoffrey Garrett, Business Economics and Public Policy professor Kent Smetters, and Vice Provost for Global Initiatives Ezekiel Emanuel.

Garrett discussed the role of global leadership in the face of crisis. He pointed to German Chancellor Angela Merkel as an exemplary leader in the age of the coronavirus, due to her blunt and efficient assessment of the actions the German people needed to take amid the pandemic. 

Smetters, who has worked in the Congressional Budget Office and United States Treasury, analyzed different policy options, such as a payroll tax holiday and lump-sum payouts, noting that the former will benefit Americans in the top 0.01% income bracket disproportionately compared to the bottom 20%. 

Smetters stressed the importance of decreasing R0, a variable that indicates the average number of people a contagious person infects. He said if R0 is not decreased, a temporary quarantine will only shift the curve on the number of deaths to a later date while simultaneously crashing the economy.

Emanuel's lecture offered guidance for how American society should allocate scarce medical resources such as ventilators, surgical masks, and intensive care hospital beds. 

Emanuel said policymakers must seek to prioritize health workers, as they are the ones who can save others in the pandemic. A first-come, first-served approach should be denied, Emanuel said, as this can reinforce inequality. 

Emanuel is an oncologist and regularly contributes to The New York Times in the face of the crisis. Emanuel has written four columns on the coronavirus this month, emphasizing the importance of a swift national response and projecting how soon the economy may be able to recover in light of the virus.

As lecturers spoke, students could ask questions through a chat feature on the BlueJeans video conferencing platform that would later be selected by the professor and relayed to the guest speaker. 

Before the first class, students were required to watch a series of interviews conducted by Guillén with Joseph Westphal, former U.S. Under Secretary of the Army and former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia; Angela Duckworth, Penn professor and bestselling author of "Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance;" Barbara Judge, former chair of the United Kingdom Pension Protection Fund; and William McNabb, former CEO and chairman of The Vanguard Group.

Course grades will be broken down by 30% for participation from discussion group comments, 30% for multiple-choice tests based on readings, 30% for a final paper, and 10% for a peer evaluation of the final paper. 

Students praised the course for its accessibility and large size.

“I was most struck by the number of people enrolled in the class,” College senior Serena Miniter said. “I really liked that students could share their thoughts in the Q&A section as well.”

Engineering sophomore JJ Kampf said he appreciated the course for its availability to students from all four undergraduate schools.

“As an Engineering student, I filled out the course form with no expectation of being able to enroll. The course is doing an excellent job of leveraging its virtual nature to increase inclusivity,” Kampf said.

Kampf said he appreciated the interdisciplinary approach of the course, adding that students "have the unreal opportunity to learn from experts in the fields of economics, healthcare, and more.”

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