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COVID-19 has achieved a degree of social disruption that would have been unfathomable a mere two months ago. It was astonishing to watch a tearful parade of evacuating students push blue bins across campus two months early, but it is even more incredulous now to observe the federal government’s response to the pandemic. States are fighting other states and their own counties for supplies, while President Donald Trump withholds federal resources until governors pay lip service. Hate crimes against Asian Americans are on the rise, encouraged by Trump’s attempts to label COVID-19 as “the Chinese virus.” Most of the blame for inadequate pandemic mobilization lies with his administration, but a significant portion should be attributed to the political and economic systems that have left our society so unprepared for weathering crises of any kind—much less a global pandemic.
The first critical misstep happened two years ago when Trump eliminated the National Security Council directorate for global health and security and biodefense. Without a White House-level advisor overseeing pandemic responses, the administration squandered valuable time between when COVID-19 first emerged and when it hit the United States. At the time of writing, the United States has administered fewer tests per capita than Italy, Germany, and South Korea, and consequently now has the worst outbreak in the world.
A progressive COVID-19 response would, in the short term, call for massive social spending—an almost universally-recommended measure during crises and a maximally effective way to mobilize resources. The Defense Production Act should also be invoked to force manufacturers to mass-produce ventilators, test kits, and protective equipment. However, Trump has refused to invoke the DPA for weeks and still refuses to use it on more than one company—despite the fact that the Department of Defense estimates that it uses the law 300,000 times per year. Health care enrollment through Affordable Care Act marketplaces should be reopened (something Trump has also refused to do), and the government should massively increase testing and allocate funds to make quarantine and COVID-19 medical treatment more affordable.
Immediate progressive responses also call for issuing a monthly $2,000 stipend to every American household during the coronavirus pandemic. Close to 17 million people filed for unemployment benefits over the last three weeks—that is more jobs lost than during the 18 months of the Great Recession. Unemployment benefits should be increased, as should Social Security checks, to offset the economic disruption of layoffs and social distancing. Millions of people no longer have stable incomes, yet our economic survival depends upon consumer spending. Accordingly, student loan debt—which now totals $1.7 trillion with a third of all borrowers behind on payments—should be canceled, and there should be a nationwide moratorium on evictions for the duration of the pandemic. The $1,200 payout in Congress’s COVID-19 stimulus bill, though a major milestone in American politics, is small compared to European programs that pay workers 75 percent of their pre-pandemic wages.
Our country’s rapid shutdown has caused stress fractures to splinter across society, the cracks following the familiar furrows of historical marginalization. Some of the hardest-hit areas in New York City are low-income neighborhoods in the Bronx and Queens that are densely populated and have large non-English-speaking populations. Closer to Columbia, Harlem residents are falling ill from COVID-19 at much higher rates than the rest of Manhattan. Resources at hospitals in Harlem and the Bronx are stretched so thin that COVID-19 symptomatic nurses are forced to continue working. Across the country, an alarming proportion of people falling ill and dying from COVID-19 are Black—in Milwaukee, they make up 26 percent of the county population, but 81 percent of COVID-19 deaths. Native American communities that lack access to food and water and have sizable elderly populations are also in extreme danger.
Social distancing is a luxury white-collar workers can enjoy, but healthcare, lower-income, and essential blue-collar workers are forced to continue working. Anyone required to risk their health during the pandemic should receive substantial hazard pay and paid sick leave to recognize their critical service, reduce transmission risks, and support the economy. The federal government should not only ensure that minority communities receive adequate supplies and healthcare in the short term, but also tackle the structural flaws that keep producing these inequities, from income-based healthcare disparities to the racial wealth gap.
A third of all Americans are uninsured or underinsured (meaning their plans include unaffordable out-of-pocket costs). Public spending cuts, the failure of wages to rise alongside productivity, and the Great Recession have resulted in an economy where almost half of Americans can’t come up with $400 in an emergency. Consumer-side economic instability has left our country extremely vulnerable to economic shocks and dangerously unprepared for the impending COVID-19 recession.
To address these societal pitfalls, we need to implement universal, single-payer healthcare (which will cut costs by a third due to administrative savings), raise the minimum wage, strengthen social programs, and get funding through a progressive tax system with higher rates on the wealthiest income brackets. Rather than give corporations billions of dollars in tax cuts and bailouts, the federal government should radically reinvest in scientific research, education, and minority communities.
One month ago, it would have been laughable to suggest that most congressional Republicans would vote to give $1,200 to a sizable percentage of the American populace. Failure to maintain adequate social programs in peacetime only forces us to implement them during crises without established revenue sources or administrative capacity. Until we acknowledge this, society will continue to suffer, not only during COVID-19 but during every crisis down the road. The most marginalized among us—homeless people, low-income and blue-collar workers, and people of color, among others—will keep bearing the brunt of the impact. Reality endorses progressivism.
Jennifer Zhang is a first-year studying political science at Columbia College and a leading member of Columbia for Warren. She can be found stress-reading about COVID-19 while refusing to unpack her dorm belongings. She encourages people who are able to donate to those fighting the pandemic.
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