As COVID-19 sweeps through the United States, large cracks in the structure of American society have begun to emerge. We should take the novel coronavirus seriously and actively work to reduce transmission rates, but the underlying disease plaguing the United States did not originate from this most recent pandemic. An insufficient social safety net is just as dangerous as a novel virus to the health of our society.
The medical crisis will eventually pass, but its effects on both the health of our communities and the health of our economy could be long lasting. COVID-19 is devastating not only because of its threat to vulnerable members of the population, but also because it has revealed the inability of our social safety net to offer needed support during times of crisis.
There has been a significant decline in economic activity since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. Since consumers are encouraged to stay home and practice social distancing, many businesses have been forced to close indefinitely in response to much lower demand. While this has broader implications for the health of the national and global markets, one of the most pressing consequences is the large population of working class individuals who now struggle to survive without the salary and benefits from their jobs. Low-income service workers and students have suffered the most from economic stagnation, since they do not always meet the requirements for unemployment benefits and their jobs cannot be performed remotely. These problems are not new, nor will they disappear with the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. For many, the primary threat is not the virus, but the weeks of quarantine. COVID-19 is a class issue as much as it is a health crisis.
Institutions like universities, public schools, and places of employment have helped patch some of the holes in the safety net by providing health insurance, income, internet connection, and stable access to nutrition for at risk populations, but social distancing policies have forced many of these institutions to close. For public health purposes, children, university students, and low-income workers have been deprived of the services on which they rely. This is not to say that the closures are the wrong choice. Social distancing is an effective measure for reducing transmission of COVID-19, but the government has not adequately provided the resources to support at-risk Americans observing self-isolation practices.
Continuing work from home is a privilege available to only 29 percent of the United States’s working population. While university professors and those in the technology industries can shift their responsibilities to a home office, the service industry does not have that same luxury. As cities shut down, those who cannot work from home are forced to stop working. Even the promise of a stimulus check from the federal government will not solve all of the problems associated with an indefinite period of unemployment, especially considering the costs of living in many major American cities.
Healthcare is especially important in the midst of a global pandemic, but for many Americans, access to healthcare is contingent on their employment status. Those who have lost their job have also lost their health insurance during a public health crisis that could last months. What the nation needs is not a stimulus package, but a healthcare system that is not dependent on employment. The best time to implement the policies necessary to support the working class was decades ago. The next best time is as soon as possible, before the pandemic is exacerbated by a large population of Americans suddenly deprived of their health insurance. The rigid class hierarchy resulting from the systemic inequality associated with our capitalist economic policy will not be merciful to those displaced by the quarantines.
Barely 10 years after the devastating 2008 financial crisis, the novel coronavirus is sending the United States into another recession that will disproportionately affect the most economically vulnerable. The social safety net is not strong enough to provide for such a large unemployed population or prevent small, family-owned businesses from collapsing due to the lack of consumers. The true disease afflicting the United States — the preexisting, underlying condition — is a flawed socioeconomic system. Hospitals have not been able to test and treat everyone who may be at risk, including many healthcare professionals, because the U.S. healthcare system does not have the resources to handle a pandemic. Only those who meet very specific symptomatic criteria are given tests for COVID-19, meaning the government is neither adequately providing for the health of the American people nor accurately tracking the transmission of the virus.
In the absence of protective social policies for workers facing unprecedented uncertainty, some companies have stepped in to help. Apple has promised to continue paying its workers during the period of closure, while Amazon and Microsoft have designated $2.5 million to those suffering from COVID-19 in Seattle. While these efforts are admirable, they should be expected. Large wealthy corporations should support their employees during a crisis, either through paid leave, continued benefits, or other means that can lessen the impact of an economic downturn like that caused by this novel coronavirus. But ideally, the government should be providing these services even when there is not a global pandemic. Health insurance should not be dependent on employment, healthcare should be readily accessible, and there should be policies and services that help Americans experiencing financial difficulties. The economic effects of the novel coronavirus pandemic prove that a system based on fending for oneself in the absence of a social safety net is not in the best interests of middle and lower class Americans. But it should not have taken a global pandemic to force the US government to acknowledge these issues. California is scrambling to house their homeless population in order to prevent rampant transmission of COVID-19, but these humanitarian efforts should have taken place long ago. The government should be providing for vulnerable members of society not because they present a health risk during a pandemic, but because they deserve certain standards of living. The lack of a social safety net has exacerbated the problems already associated with a health crisis, but perhaps we can learn from this period of uncertainty. We have an opportunity to implement policies that will support the community now and long after the pandemic has passed.