As Tom Nichols suggested earlier this week, the White House would be smart to take its own advice. By dismissing concerns about the president’s muddled statements on the fast-moving public-health emergency or the government’s lackluster response, “it is Trump and his supporters who are politicizing the coronavirus threat, and not the other way around.”
But this week’s rapidly snowballing developments aren’t just sudden and terrifying. They also underscore structural inadequacies caused by decades of civic neglect and myopic policymaking. Simply put, the coronavirus pandemic is exactly the sort of thing that should be politicized.
Before the coronavirus outbreak was officially designated a global pandemic by the World Health Organization, before governors were declaring states of emergency, before professional basketball was abruptly suspended in the middle of the season and before presidential candidates were calling off campaign events at perhaps the most pivotal moment of the primary season, the makings of an unprecedented crisis were already in evidence. Nearly all Americans are about to experience them firsthand.
After all, a public-health emergency didn’t create a paradigm in which 42 percent of service workers, whose jobs largely center on interacting with customers, must choose between showing up to work sick or making rent and paying bills because they lack access to sick leave programs.
The same goes for gig-economy workers, who have few protections and whose services in some communities stand in for aging public transit systems and other social infrastructure. A 2018 Gallup report estimates that over a third of American workers participate in the gig economy, as on-demand house cleaners, Lyft and Uber drivers, freelance temp workers and contract nurses. With these platform-based ventures offering little stability and oversight, this segment of the labor market is not equipped for a mandatory, health-related work stoppage.
Before coronavirus suddenly became a litmus test for the durability of the U.S. health care system, there were already tens of millions of Americans — over 40 percent in one recent survey — that copped to avoiding treatment while sick or injured out of fear of the anticipated costs. And, as reported cases of coronavirus have risen, so too have the shocking stories of incidents of surprise billing for those seeking testing and treatment.
With public gatherings increasingly banned and as concern about the outbreak now seems all but certain to grow, more school districts around the country will begin debating whether to join the more than 1,200 schools that have reportedly closed their doors. Unfortunately, these students will be released into an ecosystem with limited economic infrastructure to support them. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data, only 17 percent of American workers have access to paid family leave. With many Americans similarly limited in their use of sick leave, millions of affected parents will either take a financial hit or risk their jobs to watch their children. For the nearly 4 in 5 Americans who live paycheck to paycheck, the consequences could be dire.
The difficulties, especially for the most vulnerable, don’t end there. An ongoing, national struggle with food insecurity means that more than 20 million students in the U.S. rely on their schools, not just for education and socialization, but for subsidized breakfasts and lunches. Meanwhile, for seniors, the rate of food insecurity remains 7.7 percent, according to the nonprofit Feeding America, a level still higher than the years before the Great Recession.
Ultimately, the uncertainty and likely devastation currently projected by public-health experts are not the results of one shortsighted policy, one bad political decision or one failure to contain. These are results stemming from repeated missteps and outright negligence, exacted over the course of several decades. It’s because of our failure to politicize our lack of preparation that the only way the U.S. will emerge from the coronavirus pandemic with minimal grief and disruption is through a surplus of dumb luck and hand-washing.
American leaders can minimize the potential havoc of future calamities, as well as this imminent one, by confronting the wide extent of our vulnerabilities right now. To start, that could be as simple as turning the temporary financial protections and basic medical safeguards currently under consideration into permanent ones. Doing that may mean insisting that issues like sick leave, family leave and food security that have long stayed on one side of the partisan divide are and should be important to us all. For now, this crisis should feel like a failure; this is a test we’ve been setting ourselves up to fail.