Let Coronavirus Be The Start Of Systemic Change In The United States

Mar 24, 2020

Commentary: If you have not read Max Boot’s column “The coronavirus shows how backward the United States has become” (Washington Post, 18 March), you need to.  It details the many ways in which the United States, instead of being the world’s leader as the world’s richest country, is middling among the world’s wealthiest countries (OECD).

One damning paragraph reads:

Our health-care failures are particularly important now. We spend more on health care than any other country in the world, but we are the only OECD country without universal medical coverage (27.9 million Americans lacked health insurance in 2018). Child mortality in the United States is the highest in the OECD, and life expectancy is below average. We have far fewer hospital beds per capita than other advanced democracies (2.4 compared to 12.2 in South Korea), which makes us particularly vulnerable to a pandemic.

A particularly appropriate example is my hometown’s Cleveland Clinic.  Known for its excellence in cardiology and oncology, it attracts wealthy Arabs who seek treatment and, for preparation and recovery times, buy luxurious mansions on Bratenahl Boulevard with a nice view of Lake Erie.  Meanwhile, tens of millions of Americans have little or no health insurance and get little or no medical attention except in emergencies.

I do not begrudge Arab potentates the best medical care which their money can buy.  The present system is quintessentially American, biased in favor of the powerful, not the people.  The U.S., always in love with gleaming gadgets, has, and prides itself on having, the most advanced medical technologies in the world; but loving ordinary people not so much, it has a mediocre health-care system.  In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the elites in politics, finance, business, entertainment, and sports get coronavirus testing on demand; ordinary people get a wait in line or quarantine at home.

I emphatically begrudge elected Democratic and Republican members of Congress their health insurance and care.  They vote themselves the use of taxpayer money for their insurance and care but do not vote taxpayer money for insurance and care for all others.  They justify this diversion of public funds to their private purposes on the assumption that they are more deserving than everyone else.  To adapt a line from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, “all people are equal; some are more equal than others.”

This inequality is just one of many obscenities—others include income and wealth inequality, and inequality before the law—in which they are complicit.  Their complicity defies an important principle of leadership: good leaders look out for their followers.  Army officers in the field—I cannot speak for Navy and Air Force officers in rear areas—know to address the needs of enlisted personnel before they address their own.  But not our representatives.  They are content to serve themselves with government perks.  Not one—here in my part of the polity, not Udall, Heinrich, or Small—has renounced their health-related privileges in the name of fairness to all until all have adequate health insurance and care.  Time now, ladies and gentleman, for a little public service.

Worse still, these privileges cushion, swaddle, or cocoon representatives so that they perceive no urgency to solve problems affecting other peoples’ lives; they ignore them, defer them, or deflect them to others.  It is no surprise that the U.S. has not stockpiled enough, say, masks, gloves, and gowns to protect medical personnel in a health-care crisis.  Elected officials know that their doctors and nurses will have what they need when they need it.  Theirs is an “I’m all right, Jack” attitude; it explains why they have looked out for themselves and not the rest of us.

Otherwise, Congressional officials would renounce their privileges to show an operational, not merely an oratorical, belief in equality, especially in these pestilential times.  To that end, I suggest that Udall, Heinrich, and Small denounce those privileges, renounce theirs, and propose legislation to strip all senators and representatives of their publicly funded health-related benefits until they have passed legislation and appropriations which guarantee all Americans of adequate health insurance and care.

Now roused from their lethargy and indifference to the health concerns of ordinary Americans, they are rushing about in a frenzy and frantically trying to do what they long since should have done.  But they also need to take a longer view of the likely problems in just health-care alone.  They need to realize that the coronavirus is just a harbinger of things to come; global warming ensures the emergence, and long-distance travel expands the spread, of new harmful organisms against which we have little immunity.

They also need to address current large-scale problems in housing, education, and the environment—all people problems.  They need to prepare the country for future large-scale disasters.  Consider the coming Big One in San Francisco: the earthquake which will destroy the city by shifting the peninsula westward into the Pacific Ocean.  Thousands will be killed, tens of thousands injured, buildings and bridges collapsed, highways and runways torn up, harbor facilities wrecked, fires uncontrolled, water mains ruptured, power lines down, communications disrupted.  The city will be isolated from the rest of the country.  Yet the government assumes that Greyhound buses, FedEx or UPS trucks, and military helicopters will get hordes of first responders, and tons and mountains of supplies, respectively, to the area in time to reduce or prevent greater loss of life and property.  Right now, FEMA can do no better than repeat a Puerto Rico relief effort, and Congress can do no better than hold hearings in the aftermath to learn what went wrong.  Look around you, Congress; it is going wrong right now.

If you do not have trouble breathing thanks to the coronavirus, take a deep breath and then count the ways in which our elected officials of both parties have engaged in ideological mud-slinging or -wrestling, and not addressing or anticipating the nation’s expanding and proliferating problems.  Where are the bold, broad initiatives to deal with them?  Udall, Heinrich, Small—if you are not advocating, promoting, or drafting them—and making news in Congress which gets reported in state and local media—, you are not doing a job worth doing, only going along to get along.  How’s that working for us?