Frayed U.S. Social Safety Net Cripples Response to Coronavirus Pandemic

Interview with Sasha Abramsky, freelance journalist and author, conducted by Scott Harris

After weeks of dismissing medical experts’ dire warnings about the deadly consequences of the coronavirus pandemic spreading across the globe, President Trump abruptly changed his tone, stopped issuing self-serving disinformation and publicly supported the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to slow the spread of the disease. Those guidelines advised all Americans to avoid social gatherings of more than 10 people, order takeout instead of dining at restaurants, close bars, decline unnecessary trips out and work from home if possible.

Many states have now closed schools, restaurants, theaters and fitness centers. But the shutting down of the economy in the U.S. and across the world has triggered the most serious collapse of the stock market since 1987 moving economists to forecast a recession. The House responded by approving emergency legislation that included providing free coronavirus testing, two weeks of paid sick leave and paid medical leave, strengthening unemployment insurance and boosting funds for Medicaid and food stamps. Meanwhile, the White House and Congress are discussing a larger stimulus package that could allocate close to $1 trillion that may include two rounds of $250 billion worth in checks sent directly to U.S. taxpayers.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Sasha Abramsky, a freelance journalist and author who raises serious concerns about the alarming inadequacy of the US social safety net, after years of austerity, that has crippled the government’s ability to effectively respond to the deadly coronavirus pandemic.

SASHA ABRAMSKY: To be absolutely fair, I think no country is fully prepared or could be fully prepared for an emergency like this because basically what’s happened here is the emergence of a virus that we have no immunity to. And so, like with the Spanish flu 101 years ago, 102 years ago, it has the potential to rip through the global human population. And because of that, it has the potential to completely upend not just everyday life in individual countries, but the way the global economy functions and the way global public health infrastructures function. So I think, we should be honest that you could have the best healthcare system in the world, which America certainly doesn’t have and it would face at the very least extraordinary stressors, but quite possibly end up being overwhelmed by an epidemic of this proportion. But when you actually look at where America is with its healthcare, we’re particularly badly suited to deal with it for a few reasons.

The first is that we have this patchwork quilt of different insurance systems or people who just have no insurance system at all and rely on the emergency rooms if they get very, very sick. So if you’re looking for a coordinated response that coordinates information, that coordinates medical coverage, the distribution of medical equipment and so on. The American system, definitionally, because it’s so privatized, is utterly fragmented. So that’s the first problem.

The second problem is just the raw numbers. The fact that we have well over 20 million people with no health insurance at all, who can’t go to the doctor if they get sick because they’re worried about medical bills. We have another tens of millions, maybe 50 or 60 million more who are underinsured — which means they have insurance, but they end up with such high deductibles and copays that they’re also scared away from medical coverage.

And then we have the third issue, which is the under the Trump administration. Immigrants, both undocumented but also documented non-citizen immigrants are being deterred from entry into any kind of public health system because they’ve been told if you use any kind of benefits, it will be used against you when you apply for your green cards or your citizenship.

So we have these vast parts of the American population that are really, really under accessing medical coverage. Now, even though there’s now legislation saying anybody who gets sick can apply, can get a COVID test and they won’t be charged for the test and anyone who gets sick and gets treatment, they won’t be charged for the treatment. And even though the USCIS has sent out a memo saying, “We’re not going to apply the public charge rule when it comes to COVID-19.” In other words, if you’re an immigrant and you think you have COVID-19, get tested. Despite all of that, you’ve got tens of millions of Americans who believe that they are excluded from the healthcare systems and who are not going to access healthcare.

And very quickly, the last thing is an economic issue, which is that you got an awful lot of Americans who have absolutely no paid sick leave. Now again, the congressional response at the moment is going to modify that. They’ll not completely eliminate that problem. But as long as you have an awful lot of the American workforce thinking they cannot afford to take a day off work if they get sick, you’re going to have people going into public places who are sick and spreading the contagion. And so for all of these reasons, America’s facing a real challenge when it comes to this precisely because its system is so atomized and so unable to work as one to deal with a crisis like this.

SCOTT HARRIS: Well said, Sasha, I wonder if you think there’s any silver lining in the bare bones facts of the major flaws in both our economic and public health system coming to light before a national election in that there could be some longterm fixes actually on the minds of many Americans if the politicians speak to that.

SASHA ABRAMSKY: Like probably every everybody in the country and certainly all your listeners, I’m sure you know, everybody’s obsessed with what’s happening around the world. And so we’re all scrolling down and seeing what’s happening in Canada or in Europe and China and in Africa, etc. Italy is being absolutely hammered at the moment. It’s got the highest death rates from corona of anywhere on earth. Its healthcare system is on the verge of collapse, it’s on a national lockdown. And the Italian president said, “First of all, look, we have to be honest, the damage is going to be widespread and significant.” And then he said after corona, everything will be different. And I think we have to recognize that that things we took for granted, will change, for first of all in the short term, and maybe maybe for many years afterwards, there’s going to be economic devastation on a scale, maybe not since the Great Depression because you’re seeing overnight with these lockdowns and the ordering of businesses to be shut and the collapse of the travel and tourism industries. Overnight, you’re seeing millions of jobs likely to evaporate and you’re seeing some of the key linchpin businesses and the economy just evaporating.

And it’s going to have not just a ripple effect, but it’s going to fundamentally reshape our society in ways we can only begin to imagine at this point. You know, we can hope that it will lead to a universal healthcare system in this country. We can hope it will lead to extraordinary changes in how we treat the workforce so that we protect sick workers more or workers who need to take time off to look after their families. And you know, if there’s a silver lining is that years from now we may have a more humane social system to emerge from this. But it’s also equally possible, maybe more possible that we’ll have governments looking for increasingly authoritarian lockdown measures in response — that is, markets cease to function properly. We’ll have people basically reaching for their military. If supply chains start to break down, you could well see the strong powers, China or Russia or the United States essentially sort of going into countries and saying, “We need your chemicals, we need your metals, we need your products, we’ll take them.”

You can see a sort of new colonialism emerge out of this. And you know, I don’t know if it will go down that road. But I do know that in moments this profound, the world looks very different at the end than it looked at the beginning. And you know, it’s a before-after moment. People years or decades from now will look at this and say, here’s how I lived my life in 2019 and here’s how I lived my life in 2021 and then you’ll have this year of 2020 as this sort of year where we – I don’t know how we describe what we’re living through right now.

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