In the past few weeks, all notion of what’s politically and economically realistic has gone out the window in the face of the fast-spreading coronavirus and the accompanying economic collapse this pandemic will certainly bring. To protect lives and livelihoods, governments around the world are taking measures that would have been treated as unaffordable or even impossible just last month.
To protect lives and livelihoods, governments around the world are taking measures that would have been treated as unaffordable or even impossible just last month.
In Italy, people don’t have to pay their mortgages. In Spain, all private hospitals and health care providers have been nationalized. In France, all taxes, rent, and utility bills are suspended for certain companies and the government announced it's prepared to nationalize companies that go bankrupt. Even in the United States, cities and states are halting evictions, California is finally planning to at least try to house its 108,000 homeless people and even former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich is calling for a World War II-style mobilization.
For the past several years, Americans have been debating whether they should abandon the status quo and embrace a “political revolution,” with centrists and conservatives arguing the radical policies such an approach would entail would cause potentially irreparable harm to the economy. Such policies would necessitate a political and economic shift — but they are not impossible, as we are witnessing now. And beyond the biggest examples, like universal health care, this crisis is also revealing all of the smaller rules, regulations and blind spots that capitalism and bad governance enable for reasons ranging from banal laziness to cruelty.
We must respond to COVID-19 in a way that centers the most vulnerable people in our society, many of whom are also at highest risk from the virus. However, we also need to think about how we come out of this crisis: Do we simply revive the status quo once the virus is cured, or do we take this opportunity to build a society that refocuses on improving the lives of the vulnerable instead of the wealthy, and deals with the threat of the climate crisis barreling toward us?
Democrats and even some Republicans are calling for free COVID-19 testing and treatment, which naturally leads many people to wonder why they should only get free coverage for the coronavirus and not other injuries and ailments. COVID-19 could kill a lot of people, but the existing private insurance system still forces more than 500,000 people into medical bankruptcies every year and kills up to 45,000 people who are unable to access care. Why are those deaths acceptable, while COVID-19 must be stopped at all costs?
Similarly, canceling $1.5 trillion in student loan debt seems a lot more realistic when the Federal Reserve is injecting $1.5 trillion into the stock market, launching new rounds of quantitative easing, and slashing interest rates. The White House and Congress are also preparing an economic stimulus package that’s expected to exceed $1 trillion to respond to the slowing economy.
The response of the private sector has been mixed. Some internet providers are lifting data caps on broadband services and committing not to cut people off who can’t pay their bills, but this only shows how data caps mostly exist to boost profits in the first place. Tech companies are allowing corporate employees to work from home, while Uber drivers, Amazon warehouse workers, Google contractors, and workers like them who often get lower pay and fewer benefits complain they’re being put in danger by the lack of support.
Further, some major corporations are providing sick leave for those who have to self-isolate as a result of COVID-19, but many of these policies are temporary and illustrate the inadequacy of the benefits and support available to the millions of workers they employ, especially the low-wage, front-line workers who are now proving essential all across the country.
Once COVID-19 abates and people can start leaving their homes, many industries may indeed have collapsed or will be surviving on government support — the airline industry being the first. If China and Italy are any indication, carbon emissions and air pollution will have declined. We can choose whether we ramp things back up in a way that continues to threaten our futures and our health by fueling the climate crisis, or we can make the necessary investments and change the regulatory framework to move away from fossil fuels while ensuring that our workers have a future.
When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., proposed their Green New Deal in February 2019, the most likely implementation of which would cost $16.3 trillion over 10 years, it was written off as a “green dream” by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and ridiculed by Republicans who charged it was too expensive and un-American. Yet its policies would provide a job guarantee for being laid off, support for retraining for many workers, and a mass investment program to not only boost the economy, but move it away from fossil fuels.
We can choose whether we ramp things back up in a way that continues to threaten our futures and our health by fueling the climate crisis, or we can make the necessary investments and change the regulatory framework.
But even while debating those larger scale changes, the crisis is opening our eyes to the needless harm and difficulty created by policies that should have changed long ago. We already know that housing homeless people is cheaper and more effective than leaving them on the streets, so why did it take this long for most governments to do something about it?
Similarly, the United States’ racist criminal justice system jails more people than any other country in the world, and the lack of action to change it is now leading experts to worry that the horrible conditions inside prisons will accelerate the spread of COVID-19. That means prisons should be releasing inmates who are elderly, pregnant and suffering from chronic conditions that make them most vulnerable to the virus, keeping in mind that prisoners are not a monolith; some may still need rehabilitation, but there are many people behind bars who could safely be released without being a threat to the public, including a growing number who are there simply because they can’t afford to pay bail.
We’re also now seeing that some of the most essential workers to keeping society running aren’t the billionaires and CEOs, but grocery clerks, delivery drivers, cleaners and warehouse workers who get paid the least, have few benefits and work in unsafe conditions, and who whenever they try to gain small improvements in their standards of living are met with derision. Minnesota and Vermont have already reclassified grocery store workers as emergency workers so they can get free child care, but don’t they deserve more than that if they’re so essential?
Crises have been the catalyst for better societies in the past. In Sweden, the Spanish flu of 1918 was part of the justification for the welfare state they’re known for today. In the United Kingdom, the end of World War II brought the election of the Labour Party, which implemented the single-payer, government-run National Health Service. Even in the United States, it was in the aftermath of the Great Depression that President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the New Deal after being pushed by labor, a surging left and grassroots groups across the country. The same can happen today.
With the restrictions of false political realism out the window, we now need to ask ourselves whether we’re willing to accept the harms and inequities that we’ve become so used to, or seize this opportunity to address them once and for all. The decision should be an easy one.