Above Photo: We could not have prevented the virus itself, but imagine if our society had been ready for it: health care for all, paid sick days, and no one so poor they felt desperate to come to work. Photo: Jim West, jimwestphoto.com
We have been forced to choose between two terrible options:
1. Lock ourselves down to prevent the spread of the virus, resulting in massive job loss —while many vulnerable workers are still forced to work in unsafe conditions, or
2. Maintain some business as usual, stemming the economic impact but putting tens of millions of people at risk.
It didn’t have to be like this.
We could not have prevented the virus itself, nor the resulting loss of life altogether. But imagine if:
- Instead of cutting public health budgets and access to health care for decades, we had expanded it by enacting a single-payer health care system—an improved Medicare for All.
- We had community health centers that did low-cost preventive care, giving people the education and resources to stay healthy to begin with and making a much smaller share of the population at risk for dangerous disease.
- We had paid sick days for all workers so they didn’t have to come to work when they had symptoms.
- We had strong unions, high minimum wages, and good benefits, so very few people were poor. Workers would not feel so desperate to work even when sick or in danger, and they could afford basic necessities to keep them healthier year-round.
- We had a public health philosophy of “an injury to one is an injury to all.” Governments would be ready to step in with testing programs, resources for people in quarantine, and fair access for all to treatment and vaccines.
- We taxed the rich and corporations and used that money for the public good and building a strong economy. Our economy would be better equipped to sustain shocks.
- We valued science and scientists, and invested in their research on issues for the public good.
- We valued international connections and relationships, encouraging cooperation and collaboration on research, education, and treatment across borders, rather than demonizing or punishing entire nations.
Any society is vulnerable to a host of threats, from disease to climate change and natural disasters. The challenge is how to build the foundation and infrastructure that can prevent the worst outcomes and better withstand the catastrophes when they come.
So Now What?
It is too late to go back and make different choices, but we still have a choice in how to move forward.
We can continue on the same path: privatize more of the health care system; bail out the rich, the banks, and the corporations; make drugs and vaccines available only to the highest bidder. We can blame China and escalate our trade war. We can continue sanctions on Iran and contribute to high rates of illness and death there. We can act as if diseases and treatment follow borders.
Or we can move quickly to ease the burden and rebuild, and be prepared for the next pandemic and the climate crisis which is sure to come:
- Improved Medicare for All so that everyone has affordable health care.
- Guaranteed payment for all health care during the crisis.
- Personal protective equipment for health care workers and all those called into service work during the crisis.
- A Basic Income Grant that gives everyone $2,000 a month for the duration of the crisis.
- A federal jobs program. Follow Europe’s lead and require employers to keep workers on payroll throughout the crisis, with subsidies for doing so. Use stimulus money to directly hire frontline workers needed to provide care, such as retired health care workers. As soon as the danger is passed, put people back to work providing health care, improving public transit, caretaking for seniors, and more.
- A Green New Deal to invest in our infrastructure and transition to renewable energy.
- Put vital industries under public control so that we have the essential supplies needed to sustain humanity and so that production is driven by human need rather than profit.
How Will We Pay For This?
Some will argue that we cannot afford these programs. A simple answer is that we can’t afford not to.
But getting into specifics: Countries have often been forced to implement bold policies during a crisis, whether the Great Depression of the 1930s, wartime, or coming out of war. It was after World War II that many other countries established their national health care systems and their generous safety net programs, on the understanding that any society is only as strong as its weakest member and that collective programs are good for the economy.
The federal government has the ability to take on public debt to pay for big programs. This happened in 2008 when the government came up with $891 billion to bail out the financial system, with almost no strings attached. This is basically an investment in the future: borrowing money from the future to pay for necessary steps now. The economist JW Mason makes a strong case for funding the Green New Deal this way.
There are also lots of taxes we could pass:
- A wealth tax on the top 1%
- A tax on Wall Street speculation
- Require those with incomes over $250,000 a year (the wealthiest 1.8%) to pay the same rate into Social Security as working families
- A carbon tax
- A tax on corporations that pay the CEO more than 50 times the average worker’s pay
- And cut military spending.
Another Path Is Possible
Other countries are showing that there are better ways to address this health and economic crisis. We do not have to choose between saving people and saving jobs. We can pay people to stay home and we can protect people who are working on the front lines. If we demand it, we can build an economy centered on human need rather than corporate profit.
Stephanie Luce is a professor at the School for Labor and Urban Studies, City University of New York, and a member of the Professional Staff Congress-CUNY/AFT