One important lesson from our experience with the pandemic COVID-19 is that all nations, including the United States, need strong, functional, and well-funded public institutions. To summarize this lesson very simply: The private market does not protect you; a safe and secure life depends on public agencies and nonprofit community organizations.
The coronavirus, in a sense, shines a spotlight on the inequalities of our society and the human suffering they produce. No matter how much toilet paper or hand sanitizer is hoarded, an effective response to this virus will require adequately resourced public institutions. It is now clear that policies adopted by administrations from Reagan to Trump have so disemboweled our public agencies that we have not been able to react quickly and effectively to this new disease. The virus has forced upon us the realization that even fully employed people in our nation earn wages and salaries insufficient for a secure and safe life.
For most of us, there is no paid family leave or paid sick leave to enable us to take care of ourselves and our loved ones; for the majority of families quality child care is unavailable; for many of us there is no access to the health care that we need. The coronavirus has closed the schools and, for most of us, the public schools and their employees provide for both the brains and bodies of our children. Who will do it now? The coronavirus has uncovered the gaps and weakness of our private, for-profit, health care system. We do not have enough personnel, tests, hospitals, wards, clinics or equipment . And what we do have is often too expensive to be of use to most of us. “Flattening the curve” of the coronavirus will require public health programs that provide affordable and comprehensive testing and care as well as thorough measures to disinfect our homes and communities.
It is the public sector that can and will provide new clinics, sanitize and disinfect our neighborhoods, refit our schools and campuses, organize our food banks, and provide shelter for those without it. Some say that we should use the armed forces for these tasks; when we do, lets not forget that the military is part of the public sector. And, here are just a few less obvious examples of public agencies necessary to this crisis: the Veterans Administration, with its large medical system; public sanitation departments; the post office; public research universities, which do much of the medical and biological research that will be required; the federal food and drug agencies; public housing; and, FEMA.
And what is the everyday person’s role in all this? Well, we must pay for it. All the things required for attacking the virus and rebuilding our lives will be funded by taxes. It was foolish to have put into office a series of “leaders” who have allowed these vital public services and agencies to wither away. They must be rebuilt and this will require government spending, including diverting money from the military into things like health care and social services. Now, perhaps it will become obvious to more of us that paying taxes is one of the first acts of responsible citizenship. It is these taxes that will enable us to control this virus and treat its victims. If Jeff Bezos and the rest of the “new capitalists” really want to help, they should please stop avoiding their social responsibility and pay their taxes!
Coronavirus makes clear the dangerous falsehood of phrases like “government is the problem”. Now we are forced to see the incredible damage done by decades of budget cuts and ideological attacks on the public sector in the United States. It is time we used what’s left of our democracy to enable a governmental system that provides for the entire citizenry, especially the least fortunate.
Finally, the coronavirus like our other “existential crisis,” climate change, has made clear that we truly are one world. It will not do to label this a “foreign virus” and turn our back on our fellow nations. “America first” equates to “America never.”
Now we can see that the quality of life in our society requires that all residents (rich and poor, citizen and noncitizen, employed and unemployed, housed and not housed) are provided with the basics of life, like income, food, shelter, education, transportation, and health care. And, only the public sector is organized to provide these to everyone. The private market will not do so since there is very little profit to be had from providing everyone with affordable basic goods and services. Rather, our lives and well-being depend on public agencies and what they do.
We need a healthy public sector to be healthy ourselves.
Tom Meisenhelder is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at CSU San Bernardino. Retired, he currently resides in Huntington Beach.
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