As a nation, we are now getting a clear lesson about the importance of national health care. We need to get that lesson in clear focus. For years, the debate has been confused by a simple, deep contradiction: as a nation, we are obsessed with health care as an individual choice — not a public health issue. The difference is enormous.
As an individual, you might choose not to get vaccinated against many common diseases. When you make this choice, you may be thinking about your own welfare. But while you might not believe in science, germs are a reality that the rest of us must live with. By not being vaccinated, people become vectors of disease that can infect a great many other people. So, President Trump might flaunt his disbelief in the coronavirus and stand at rallies and shake a thousand hands in the vain belief he is invincible and immune. The fact is, he might not get the virus himself, but he might well spread it from the first person in line to the last. He is thinking about himself, not public health.
Recently, a regular contributor to these pages wrote in praise of our local health care system. It would be nice to think others had the same good care, yet the same writer has repeatedly applauded Donald Trump as he undermined “Obamacare,” cut funding to the Centers for Disease Control, the NSC pandemic unit, etc. All the while, Trump did nothing to create the “much better” health care plan that he had repeatedly promised. When this crisis started, our health care system was already badly damaged. We are paying the price now.
On March 13, almost a week after the president claimed that millions of tests were available, the U.S. had only tested about 10,000 people. South Korea, where the first cases were reported at almost the same time as the U.S., has been able to test 10,000 people a day for many weeks. They have serious public health care.
Trump’s response to the medical reality has been appalling. He has been more focused on saving the stock markets than he has been on treating people. His efforts to intervene in markets have backfired catastrophically.
Trump just doesn’t get it. This is not essentially a financial crisis. It’s a health care crisis. The only way to treat it is to take care of people. There is no point in giving away trillions of dollars to stimulate economic demand when the virus demands that we restrict economic activity of all kinds. We need, instead, to give average Americans emergency support so they can buy essential goods and services. That will both keep the economy afloat and help the people who desperately need it at the same time. Furthermore, anyone without health care who needs coronavirus testing and treatment should get it for free — and be automatically enrolled in Medicare at the same time.
Some people say we should not “politicize” the virus crisis, but there is a simple truth: it is a political issue. Politics is basically about how we choose to treat other people. When you cut through all the crap, the truth is clear: the bottleneck about virus testing was all about who would pay. We must change our way of thinking.
If we had a single-payer health care system oriented towards public health in place right now, there wouldn’t be confusion about who would pay, or most of the other issues that are now creating public panic.
As we quarantine ourselves and engage in social distancing, maybe this “timeout” for the whole system could be a good thing. It may give us all time to reconsider our priorities and how they affect our neighbors and communities: to let us reflect on the responsibilities of being a national community. If we chose, social distancing could actually help bring us closer together. The only public events that should never, ever, be canceled are our elections.
The bottom line is pretty clear — the more we focus on our own, personal individual health care choices at the expense of the public good, the sicker our society (quite literally) will become. So, wash your hands a lot: that may protect you and your immediate contacts from the virus, but don’t believe it will absolve you of your greater responsibility to provide affordable health care for your neighbors.
Gilbert Schramm is a resident of Newport.