COVID-19 exposed the cracks in our system. We have to fill them, not just paper them over | Opinion

April 28, 2020 6:30 am

By Marc Stier

We can learn a great deal from moments of crisis, not just about ourselves and other people but about our political community.  And that’s very much true of the COVID-19 crisis.

The first critical lesson the pandemic teaches us is that in a modern political economy our own good depends on the good of all. While our way of life leaves room for us to advance and fail as individuals, whether we can do so often depends on forces beyond ourselves. Far more than we are often willing to admit, we rise and fall together.<u

That is clearly true when it comes to becoming infected by the coronavirus, surviving it, and limiting its impact on our lives.

Stay at home rules, business closures, and social distancing are necessary because our chance of becoming infected with the virus depends on how quickly it spreads through the population. Whether those of us who become infected live or die depends in part on our own age and circumstances.

But far fewer people would survive if not for the hospitals; well-trained doctors and nurses; and administrative, janitorial, maintenance, and other staff that are only in place because of massive government investment as well as the health insurance that government subsidizes for almost all of us. And without massive government support to individuals, businesses, and state governments, the economic distress created by the necessary response to the virus would be far greater than it is.

The second lesson of COVID-19, however, is that while we rise and fall together, some rise and fall further than others. In times of warfare we seek to share the burdens of war equally.

The burdens of the emergency COVID-19 pandemic should be no different. Our country is rich, and the federal government has a practically unlimited capacity to borrow funds to protect people from the economic disaster just as it has borrowed to fight wars.

However, the burdens of COVID-19 have not been shared equally. The initial response to the pandemic has been inadequate and unfair. Small businesses have not received all the support they need or were promised, and large corporations have elbowed their way in front of them.

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Businesses have not been required to continue to pay their employees to receive any support. The expansion of the unemployment system—with higher benefits and an extension of those benefits to the self-employed—is welcome though delayed. But too many people who contribute to our economic life and pay taxes—especially immigrants, both documented and undocumented—have been left out.

The inequality in the response to economic suffering is magnified by existing inequities in our political community. That’s the third lesson of COVID-19.

Frontline workers who are risking their lives and thus dying at higher rates—nurses, grocery store workers, sanitation workers, farm and food production workers—are more likely to be Black and brown people. And people of color and those with low incomes are more likely to die from COVID-19 because of the continuing impact of race and class on access to health care, fresh food, and a life free from the stress of economic uncertainty or racism.

Our employer-based system of providing health insurance has cut many of the unemployed off from their health insurance and has made it difficult for them to afford insurance or deal with bureaucratic barriers to secure it, problems that are far more serious for those with low incomes.

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People with low incomes have also suffered more because they lack the access to paid sick days or family leave available to those with higher incomes. And because they pay so much for housing, they are vulnerable to losing their homes.

Longer term consequences of the current economic crisis will also be distributed unfairly. Pennsylvania school districts are already the most unequally funded in the country.

Unless the state acts, those inequities will grow as a result of declining local revenues for schools in low-income communities. Private and state-related schools have far more resources to recover from the pandemic than the PASSHE colleges that educate more children coming from the working class. Local governments in wealthy communities will also find it far easier to weather the storm than those in poor communities.

Finally, the last lesson from COVID-19 is that those who have long fought against reducing the inequities in our political and social life haven’t learned the other lessons.

The last few weeks have seen an effort by Republicans in the Pennsylvania General Assembly and on the streets to push the state to prematurely end the regulations that are protecting our lives.

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These legislators also voted against provisions to provide frontline workers with PPE or hazard pay and provided no help to small businesses. Sadly, they would rather everyone all suffer than admit what COVID-19 has taught us: It takes a strong community acting together to ensure that we are all safe, healthy, and prosperous.

The rest of us should commit to ensuring that relief from COVID-19 flows to everyone and to overcoming the inequities in our political community revealed by the pandemic.

Marc Stier is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Budget & Policy Center, a progressive think-tank in Harrisburg. His work appears occasionally on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. 

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