A remarkable feature of the coronavirus is how it has put into stark relief issues that have long been simmering in the American landscape. It is as if most of the water has drained away to reveal a lost town on the bottom of a reservoir. The need for changes long called for have now become more apparent to everyone.
First and foremost, Americans need better health care. We are the wealthiest country in the world, and spend more than any other country per patient, yet the World Health Organization ranks the U.S. 37th in health care, just above Slovenia. We live in a country that manufactures Hellfire missiles at a cost of $115,000 each yet can’t reliably provide N95 masks for our frontline healthcare workers that cost 58 cents each. Even after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, 27 million Americans have no health care. Every other developed country provides health care for all as a human right.
Another big issue is homelessness. How many times have we heard that cities, counties and states claim they don’t have the funds or resources to help our homeless? But with the outbreak of the virus, it became clear that homeless people left on the street would serve as a nexus for spreading disease. All of a sudden, as if a fairy waved a magic wand, cities are now finding housing for the homeless, regardless of whether they are using drugs, or have job prospects, or have asked for help. That is exactly what homeless advocates have recommended for years: housing first, then worry about the details and social work outreach.
Minimum wage. For years progressives advocated a $15-an-hour living wage so that if you worked full time you could actually support yourself. With most people staying home, suddenly the value of the work low-paid people do has become much more evident. Who harvests the produce? Who works in the slaughterhouses? Who cares for young children when we are at work? Who cooks and serves food in restaurants? Who cleans up around the hospitals and does most of the hands-on care in nursing homes? Who fills your Amazon orders? Who drives the busses and trucks? To incentivize those essential people to keep working, even during the virus, companies have at least temporarily increased wages.
Many Americans with professional middle-class jobs may not realize that this country doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave for workers or provide family leave to take care of a sick relative or child. But now new emergency legislation has expanded paid sick and family leave for millions of workers. Another virus-era change has come with the suspension of work requirements for food assistance, another item progressives have long supported. And the $2 trillion stimulus package proposed to provide a $1,200 direct payment to most American adults, an idea that had been strictly ‘experimental’ in the past.
For a long time, environmentalists have called for people to drive less and for all of us to burn less fossil fuel. Lo and behold, with everybody sheltering in place at home, people are driving much less. So, oil prices have plummeted, and even the skies over Los Angeles have cleared up, demonstrating how much air pollution we visit on ourselves by rejecting public transportation and insisting on driving everywhere. Now people eager to get out of the house for some fresh air are much more likely to walk or bicycle around their own neighborhoods. They even appreciate the restorative value of nature more.
How about international cooperation? The virus affects the entire world, and any solution, such as a vaccine, will need to be administered to the entire world population. Countries that might otherwise maintain their differences or hostilities will have to bury the hatchet long enough to make sure everybody fights the virus together. Americans, not known for caring much about what goes on in other countries, now pay close attention to what is happening in China, or Sweden, or Brazil, or any other country either successfully containing the virus, or else dramatically losing ground so that we can learn from their innovations or failures. The virus has even put authoritarian leaders in an embarrassing spotlight, since they are typically the ones ignoring virus strictures in favor of keeping their economies profitable.
Finally, we should be paying more attention to what is going on behind the scenes. While we are understandably distracted by all of the current uncertainty, the Trump administration continues to remove environmental regulations, to expand their efforts to rig the courts, to try to privatize the U. S. Postal Service, and to undermine voting rights. So all in all the virus has served as a kind of magic wand for change, some in a negative direction, but even more so highlighting the many positive changes progressive people welcome.
Bruce Henderson, Grover Beach, CA