It seems like a year, but it was only about four weeks ago that I first addressed what we could learn from our current crisis. It is now emphatically clear that the global COVID19 pandemic has touched off the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. In that previous essay I cited three lessons:
The first lesson is that decades of delegitimizing and defunding government agencies has in fact made them less capable than they should be, less competent than they used to be. We need to strengthen agencies such as the CDC, not cut their budgets and still expect them to perform. We need effective government to do for us what nobody individually can do for themselves, and what private businesses can’t make a profit on.
The second lesson: the American health care system cannot handle such an emergency. We need more effective disaster planning at the federal level, including federal procurement and dispensing of essential supplies. Our system of private insurance through employers is not ready for an epoch of mass unemployment. We will approach Medicare for All or something similar, because there is no alternative.
The third lesson: the massive wave of deregulation of the American economy since Reagan critically weakened the government’s ability to assure that private businesses serve the public interest. This capability must be restored, to stop profiteers from exploiting our adversity.
If anything, the last month has reinforced each of these lessons. A strong and capable national government is indispensable if we are to avoid the disaster we have experienced with this pandemic, both at the level of public health and that of managing the economy. And our patchwork health care system that orbits around for-profit insurance has proven completely incapable of confronting the pandemic.
Given that future pandemics are increasingly likely, we need to be positioned to monitor their emergence, to move quickly to develop diagnostic testing, treatment options, and vaccines.
We now know enough to go further. We can learn from countries like South Korea and Germany how important it is to get on top of a pandemic quickly. Conversely, we could learn from Sweden that it is possible to have results similar to its Nordic neighbors without shutting down the economy.
Given that future pandemics are increasingly likely, we need to be positioned to monitor their emergence, to move quickly to develop diagnostic testing, treatment options, and vaccines. That means getting back to having world-class government laboratories: we can’t depend on private pharmaceutical firms to do the basic, non-profitable research that will be needed to get ahead of future outbreaks.
We need to be clear that, while state and local governments are well-position to tailor responses to local circumstances, they cannot set up a coherent national response. The federal government must be prepared to do this and do it in a timely manner. Here is the biggest failure of the US response to the coronavirus. We must do better.
Had there been such a coherent national response, had there been effective and early laboratory work, we could have avoided much of the economic catastrophe that we have seen. If we had been able to find out early who had the disease and where their contacts were, there would have been no need to impose the draconian stay-home lockdown and the shutdown of nonessential businesses that we have suffered for the last month. We could have avoided what is likely to be a prolonged period of a sputtering economy where consumer spending will be hard-pressed to get back to its pre-pandemic levels. It could have been better.
And it is clear from the massive rise in unemployment that has produced what could become another Great Depression, that we can no longer depend on a system of private health insurance provided through employers. As soon as workers lose their jobs, they lose their insurance, just when they need it most. The only reliable way to have health coverage will now be through the government. It may not be called Medicare for All, or Single Payer, but that is where we are headed.
We are experiencing an unprecedented natural and social disaster. May we not miss this chance to rebuild a stronger America.