We Can’t Go Back to the Way Things Used to Be

Coronavirus testing has been a debacle in the U.S. Photo: Kena Betancur/Getty Images

All 58 members of the Utah Jazz have been tested for the novel coronavirus. Their fans haven’t been quite so lucky. For the average American with a fever and cough, coronavirus tests are elusive. “The system is not really geared to what we need right now … That is a failing. Let’s admit it,” Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said on Thursday. “The idea of anybody getting it easily the way people in other countries are doing it, we’re not set up for that. Do I think we should be? Yes. But we’re not.” In New York, multiple people have said that health professionals turned them away when they sought tests, thanks in large part to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s strict criteria. There are simply not enough tests to go around — unless a sick person can boast money and fame in addition to symptoms.

The coronavirus has inflicted new stress on a system already too unequal to function. Without a remedy, the consequences will be deadly, especially for the vulnerable; the people likely to suffer the most from failing health-care infrastructures are the elderly and the immunocompromised. Now formally classified as a pandemic by the World Health Organization, the outbreak has a familiar magnifying effect. Like the high cost of insulin or the expense of childbirth, the coronavirus has illuminated failures that ought to be too significant for anyone to ignore.

But ignorance can be a comfortable state. The inadequacies of our health-care system and the absence of basic labor protections for millions have been problems for decades. The risks they pose are obvious, at least to those most harmed by them. Politicians, meanwhile, have either rejected solutions outright, as in the case of the GOP, or offered inconsistent relief, as in the case of the Democratic Party. The political will to challenge private industry, to devolve power from wealthy interests to those who have historically lacked it, has been absent for decades. If universal health care or better labor policy ever seemed like abstract goals, their necessity was only obscured by the identities of those who would most benefit from reform, and from the perceived value of those people to the ruling class. Viewed from above, vulnerability looks like invisibility.

The coronavirus reveals the true costs of that ignorance. Even compared to the insulin crisis, an outbreak has unique qualities. A virus can strike anyone and inflict serious economic pain, the effects of which may be so widespread that welfare and labor at last become priorities for those in power. Democrats have advanced a bill that would make coronavirus testing free, and create a permanent sick-leave benefit plus a temporary benefit for federal workers who either fall ill from the coronavirus themselves or must care for relatives who do. The same bill allocates $1 billion to help furloughed workers sign up for unemployment benefits and, according to ABC News, guarantees food aid to “low-income pregnant women and their young children, senior citizens and food banks.”

But Republicans balked. The bill would fund abortions somehow, they said, and the sick-leave provisions gave government too much power. Of greater concern to the Trump administration are the nation’s markets. The Federal Reserve announced that it will invest $1.5 trillion to stabilize the plunging Dow. As Thursday afternoon dragged on, talks continued, but an agreement that benefits workers and the poor looked increasingly distant. Even if Democrats compromised and offered temporary paid leave instead of their current proposal, the implications would be profound. Any president who created paid leave, only to later let it expire, would inspire outrage. People generally prefer to keep their benefits; even Republicans have been unable to ignore the enduring popularity of Medicare and Medicaid and changing public attitudes about the Affordable Care Act. They’ve had to adopt a degree of subtlety, destabilizing programs a bit at a time instead of eliminating them outright. Universal paid leave may be more difficult to weaken once it’s in place.

Maybe Republicans perceive something profound about the nature of disaster, and did so well before their Democratic colleagues: that today’s concessions could become permanent. The coronavirus is already transforming daily life and public expectations along with it; the workers who are organizing for sick leave now — in food-service jobs and airports and gig industries — will not stop once the outbreak fades. There is no way to go back to the way we were. It isn’t possible, and it’s inadvisable to try. The everyday injustices on display to the world aren’t easy to forget. As the death toll mounts — and it will — so will the public’s demands. Offering greater equality in the guise of policies that already exist in much of the world isn’t just a way to mitigate the effects of disease. It will also guarantee stability at home.

We Can’t Go Back to the Way Things Used to Be