The unequal impact of the pandemic and economic collapse are forcing us to rethink the assumptions of our system.
By Bernie Sanders
Mr. Sanders is a senator from Vermont and former Democratic candidate for president.
April 19, 2020
We are the richest country in the history of the world, but at a time of massive income and wealth inequality, that reality means little to half of our people who live paycheck to paycheck, the 40 million living in poverty, the 87 million who are uninsured or underinsured, and the half million who are homeless.
In the midst of the twin crises that we face — the coronavirus pandemic and the meltdown of our economy — it’s imperative that we re-examine some of the foundations of American society, understand why they are failing us, and fight for a fairer and more just nation.
The absurdity and cruelty of our employer-based, private health insurance system should now be apparent to all. As tens of millions of Americans are losing their jobs and incomes as a result of the pandemic, many of them are also losing their health insurance. That is what happens when health care is seen as an employee benefit, not a guaranteed right. As we move forward beyond the pandemic, we need to pass legislation that finally guarantees health care to every man, woman and child — available to people employed or unemployed, at every age.
The pandemic has also made clear the irrationality of the current system. Unbelievably, in the midst of the worst health care crisis in modern history, thousands of medical workers are being laid off and many hospitals and clinics are on the verge of going bankrupt and shutting down. In truth, we don’t have a health care “system.” We have a byzantine network of medical institutions dominated by the profit-making interests of insurance and drug companies. The goal of a new, long-overdue health care system, Medicare for All, must be to provide health care to all, in every region of the country — not billions in profits for Wall Street and the health care industry.
It is true that the Covid-19 virus strikes anyone, anywhere, regardless of income or social status. Prince Charles of Britain has been diagnosed with Covid-19 and the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has just been released from a hospital. Rich people get the virus and rich people die. But it is also true that poor and working-class people are suffering higher rates of sickness and are dying at much higher rates than wealthy people.
This is especially true of the African-American community. This disparity in outcomes from exposure to the virus is a direct reflection not only of a broken and unjust health care system but also an economy that punishes, in terrible ways, the poor and working class of this country.
In addition to millions of lower-income families not having any health insurance, Covid-19 virus is vicious and incredibly opportunistic in attacking people with pre-existing conditions and weakened immune systems. For a wide variety of socio-economic reasons, it is the poor and working class in this country who are exactly in that position as they suffer higher rates of diabetes, drug addiction, obesity, stress, high blood pressure, asthma and heart disease — and are most vulnerable to the virus. Poor and working-class people have lower life expectancies than rich people in general, and that tragic unfairness remains even truer with regard to this pandemic.
Further, while doctors, governors and mayors tell us that we should isolate ourselves and stay at home, and rich people head off to their second homes in less populated areas, working-class people don’t have those options. When you are living paycheck to paycheck, and you lack paid medical and family leave, staying home is not an option. If you’re going to feed your family and pay the rent, you have to go to work. And, for the working class, that means leaving your home and doing jobs that interact with other people, some of whom are spreading the virus.
If there is any silver lining in the horrible pandemic and economic collapse we’re experiencing, it is that many in our country are now beginning to rethink the basic assumptions underlying the American value system.