America isn’t ready for coronavirus. In the last 24 hours, millions of school children across the country have been told to stay home for two weeks, or even longer. This is an important public health step to stop the spread, but it also means parents can’t go to work.
I’m fixing lunch for a 9 and 12 year old as I write this. And I’m one of the lucky ones who is able to telecommute. Millions of Americans are not so lucky.
In addition to the countless schools and businesses that are moving to telecommuting or closures, we’re also hearing from the CDC that if you are sick you should stay home, other than to seek medical treatment.
And yet, we have to ask, exactly how are the third of Americans without paid sick days supposed to follow this advice?
Likewise the nearly 90 million Americans who are uninsured or underinsured are already sick with worry that if they contract the coronavirus they won’t be able to get treatment.
This pandemic threatens to go from very bad to a whole lot worse simply because of our chronic disinvestment in the health and economic security of millions of Americans. The level of danger and risk we now face is directly related to our policy failures.
Democrats in Congress are moving as fast they can on a policy response to the coronavirus that puts our health and safety first with paid sick days, enhanced unemployment insurance, food security, strong protections for frontline workers, widespread and free coronavirus testing, anti-price gouging protections from surprise medical billing, and increased capacity for the medical system.
The reality is that these are all things that progressives have spent a very long time fighting for--guaranteed health care, paid sick days and family leave, an end to surprise medical billing, and a strong social safety net. Republicans on the other hand, have blocked them at every turn.
And now we’re seeing the fallout from Republican indifference to low-income and middle-class families in real time: A Pennsylvania man and his young daughter were recently evacuated from Wuhan, China. When his daughter started coughing, they did the responsible thing and went to the hospital to get checked out. They were quarantined for a few days, and ultimately tested negative for the virus. When the medical bill for $3,918 arrived, he was stunned. Almost 40 percent of people in the U.S. can’t afford a $400 emergency bill, let alone nearly $4,000. How many times has this scene played out already at kitchen tables across America?
Just the other day, a family member told me her prescriptions were filled by a pharmacy tech who sneezed her way through the transaction. When asked why she didn’t go home to rest, the pharmacy tech said, "they won't let me." How many vulnerable people were exposed to cold or flu, or potentially worse, by that one pharmacy tech? Seven in ten low-wage workers can't take time off to go to the doctor when they are sick or stay home from work without putting their jobs on the line. This is playing out in restaurants, stores, and yes, even pharmacies all across America.
When the 2008 recession hit, we engineered a massive bank bailout. If we can bail out the banks in a matter of days, we can provide guaranteed health care and workplace protections that our fellow Americans need to stay healthy and avoid getting the rest of us sick. We’ve also got to learn the lessons of 2008 and make sure we bail out the people who need it most. Economic stimulus should focus on low- and middle income families, not tax giveaways or poorly structured bailouts that help Wall Street but leave Main Street in the dust.
When it comes to a highly contagious virus like COVID-19 (or the flu for that matter), we’re all in this together. We have to make it possible for everyone to actually follow the CDC’s advice. That’s why Congress and the Trump administration must take action to ensure everyone can get tested, everyone has the guaranteed health care they need to get treated, everyone can stay home if they or a loved one are sick, and everyone can survive an economic slowdown.
It should not take a terrifying national emergency for us to wake up to the realization that we all pay the price when we treat people like they don’t matter. Medicare for All, paid family leave, universal child care, a robust social safety net. These things are not a wish list. They are essentials. Now is the time to put the basic foundation in place that will make us all safer and more secure in good times, and more resilient when disaster strikes.
Liz Watson is the executive director of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Center. She is the former labor policy director of the House Education and Labor Committee and a former Democratic nominee for Congress in Indiana’s 9th Congressional district.