In pandemics, we are all socialists. “You can look at it as socialized medicine, but in the face of an outbreak, a pandemic, what’s your options?” asked Rep. Ted Yoho, a right-wing Republican from Florida, who has spent his political career trying to destroy the Affordable Care Act.
Yoho was asked about the possibility of free testing as coronavirus rapidly spreads across the United States, threatening to overwhelm the beleaguered healthcare system. The congressman seemed to, at last, be conceding a point the very people he hated so much have been making for his entire life: it’s better to have a stronger social safety net than a weak one.
Even President Donald Trump, who has led the conservative assault against the administrative state since taking office, implied as much, agreeing with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to an aid package that included two weeks of paid sick leave and up to three months of family medical leave, though there are still serious gaps that need to be filled. The bill included the free virus testing that Yoho suggested earlier in March.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered insurance companies to waive co-pays for tele-health visits. The Real Estate Board of New York, the lobbying arm of the city’s landlords and real estate developers, pledged (under public pressure) to put a three month moratorium on evictions. Con Edison has promised not to turn off anyone’s electricity if a bill isn’t paid.
These sorts of policies wouldn't exist to protect us from future pandemics but would protect the overall health and sanity of the most vulnerable. As the 24 New York state senators who signed a letter calling for the eviction moratorium argued, it will safeguard the health of those who would otherwise be forced to the streets.
The Yohos of the world will argue this kind of socialism is only necessary temporarily – eventually, we’ll all go back “normal” and can return to the status quo of for-profit healthcare and housing. Whenever the pandemic passes, we won’t need paid sick leave. The United States can continue to have one of the weakest social safety nets of any industrialized nation in the world.
What coronavirus has done is thrown into the sharpest relief possible how we’ve continued to fail the most needy and vulnerable in our society. Hospitals don’t have nearly enough beds because the profit motive encourages eliminating any slack in the system. Individuals have to choose among paying rent, buying groceries, or showing up at the doctor. Staying home so your co-workers don’t get sick can cost you money or even your job.
The absurdity of the conservative stance – socialism for now, not for later – ignores how millions of Americans endure crises each year that are every bit as debilitating for them personally as coronavirus is now for the nation. People fall and break their hips. They get in car crashes. They get infections. They get more ordinary versions of the flu. They get cancer.
They struggle to pay rent and are forced into the street with nowhere to go. Through exposure to germs, mentally unwell individuals, and the stress of a precarious existence, they potentially shorten their lifespans in homeless shelters. When coronavirus passes, we will still have a nation of sick and vulnerable people who encounter a healthcare system that prioritizes profit over life. And they will still be contending with a brutal housing market in the New York City region. Rents may temporarily flatten or fall, but 9/11 and the 2008 economic crash didn’t make it any easier for the working class and poor to live in the five boroughs over the long haul, as prices rose faster than inflation once the economy rebounded.
Liberals rejoiced when Rep. Katie Porter, a Democrat from California, convinced Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to agree to ensure no one gets billed thousands of dollars for coronavirus tests. But that whole question would be moot under Medicare-for-all.
Healthcare should be free, rent stabilization should be a privilege available to anyone, and utilities should either be publicly-owned or forced to provide internet and electricity to everyone at a reasonable price. We are an incredibly wealthy nation, one that spends hundreds of billions on its military budget alone. We can create an actual social safety net if we try.
The failure of what we have now is both deeply distressing and inevitable. It was only a matter of time before America’s frail social safety net was challenged by a crisis. The debate over school closures in New York City is evidence of this: the best argument for keeping public schools open revolved around providing social services separate from education: Without schools, needy kids can’t get meals, can’t have after-school activities, and can’t be supervised by adults. But in a more sane and just society, the city, state, or federal governments would have universal family leave programs in place so parents could stay home to watch children without reprisal from their employers. Food would be readily available for anyone who needs it. Schools would simply teach and the safety net would take care of the rest.
We are entering a dark period for our country. The hope now is future leaders learn from our mistakes and build a stronger society that is better prepared to manage the next pandemic, climate crisis, or unforeseen mass casualty event. Out of World War II, the United Kingdom erected a universal healthcare system that stands to this day. Crisis can present opportunity. Trump will probably not learn from this, but his successors can and so can New Yorkers.