Will Bunch: From no insurance to an unemployment runaround, coronavirus exposes broken US system

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We need a hero. How else to explain what motivates thousands of New Yorkers to go out on their rooftops or throw open their windows at precisely 7 p.m. every night to scream and yell and applaud and bang on the pots and pans — all to show the beleaguered and literally life-risking nurses, doctors and hospital staffers working in the epicenter of a global pandemic how much they are appreciated, even loved.

But in a time of a public health crisis without precedent for all but a handful of living Americans, we also need villains — a role that a handful of vulture capitalists straight out of central casting are all too willing to play. Sure, it’s a crime (and uncalled for), but very few tears were shed when a vandal scrawled “Joel Kills” on the ritzy Rittenhouse townhouse of health care capitalist Joel Freedman, after he demanded $1 million a month to use his empty 500-bed Hahnemann Hospital for any coronavirus overflow. Folks like Freedman or record mogul David Geffen — showing the world that it’s easy to cope with a deadly pandemic when you can park your $590 million yacht in the warm waters of the Grenadines — are easy pickings.

It’s human nature. Faced with our understandable fear of the great unknown, we impose a narrative that makes sense of it all, and that started even before TV news needed to fill 24 hours a day. And the stories we tell ourselves to live through the coronavirus are real. The people working overtime through an epoch of invisible sickness and death — especially the health care workers on the front lines, but also the once-too-easily forgotten folks who stock our grocery shelves and pick up our trash — truly are heroic, while Freedman’s villainy of squeezing every dollar out of an iconic hospital before shuttering it has been hiding in plain sight.

At moments like this one or, in recent memory, 9/11, it’s life-affirming to remember that the majority of our neighbors are good and decent people, not just trying to survive but willing to pitch in for the good of the community. But here’s what we — and the folks in the media who funnel the news we get nonstop — often fail to grasp: Most Americans, including those struggling on the margins, are good people trapped in a wretched system built around us.

How wretched? The other day I was reading a New York Times article on how the bottom dropped out overnight for millions of American workers in businesses that have been closed or curtailed during the coronavirus shutdowns — and every newly laid-off person was carrying around a giant weight from an American system that, without universal health care or higher ed, or any real semblance of the safety net found in other developed countries, clearly has no capacity to handle what appears to be a looming second Great Depression.

We met the 59-year-old laid-off Miami airport worker who’s already moved back in with his mom and has just $3,100 in savings but $15,000 in medical bills in practically the only developed country where a person could have $15,000 in unpaid medical bills. And the 48-year-old jobless Ohio restaurant server now home-schooling his two special needs children by day and getting up at 4 in the morning to dial his state’s unemployment line, the only time he thinks he might get through. And the married Miami fitness instructors, both laid off, who don’t have the savings to buy groceries and pay the rent because that’s all gone to paying off student loans, in the only developed nation with $1.6 trillion in college debt.

What’s really scary is that this is just the tip of the iceberg. This week, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis issued a shockingly apocalyptic forecast that as many as 47 million Americans could lose their jobs before the crisis is over and that the unemployment rate could spike to 32%, eclipsing the Great Depression of the 1930s. With the U.S. death toll still rising, the main focus has understandably been on the public health disaster and less on the economic toll. But here’s what’s so exasperating: It didn’t have to be this way.

Other counties facing the coronavirus crisis have crafted economic bailouts in a way aimed to prevent the need for mass layoffs. In Denmark, the government is paying businesses anywhere from 75-90% of an employee’s salary if that worker is not laid off, and similar initiatives are being implemented in the Netherlands and the U.K. Yes, these are expensive bailouts — the Denmark plan, which includes paid sick leave and rent relief, could total 13% of its gross domestic product — but the U.S. is also trying an expensive bailout that makes people call their state unemployment office dozens of times and live in constant fear of medical bills.

America’s safety net is terrible, in part because our politics are so terrible. In Pennsylvania, where a mind-blowing 830,000 new unemployment claims have caused state officials to admit the system is “malfunctioning” with frustrated applicants saying it’s much, much worse than that, the office that processes these claims has several hundred fewer workers and is down one center because of a juvenile 2016 political spat between GOP lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Wolf. On Capitol Hill, the $2.2 trillion relief package enacted last week is a little more worker friendly than we’ve come to expect after several decades of American kleptocracy, but still larded by lobbyists and their political pals with lots of corporate welfare, in a nation that puts wealthy shareholders at the front of the line.

Ask yourself: Why are our next-door neighbors in Canada streamlining their relief program to give adults a $2,000 check every month for the next four months, while America has designed a complicated machine — the direct check is only $1,200, although the jobless will benefit from turbocharged unemployment payments, if and when they ever get that benefit — that Rube Goldberg himself would struggle to operate? The millions of marginalized or, increasingly, homeless Americans who are “unbanked” may have to wait months for that $1,200, if they can get it at all — even as they clearly need it the most.

Is this any way to run the world’s beacon of democracy? Don’t answer that! And yet here we find ourselves in a time of coronavirus choosing the next president, and faced with the likelihood of two septuagenarian nominees — one who’s spent four years shredding what’s left of the safety net and one who mainly wants a return to the “normalcy” that fostered these problems. Just this week, likely Democratic nominee Joe Biden told an interviewer that even with the pandemic he fails to see the need for a universal health system like “Medicare for All.” Seriously? Just wait until voters start getting massive hospital bills before they get their paltry $1,200.

Events on the ground are likely to leave both Biden and President Donald Trump in the dust. Already, thousands of workers at businesses like Amazon and Instacart are striking because of alarm over potentially unsafe working conditions, and working-class unrest will only get worse once the now-predicted depression takes root.

In normal times, voters had been buying the argument that a switch from America’s inhumane health care system — with its surprise bills and medical bankruptcies — to a single-payer system was too disruptive. By Election Day, however, the combo of hospital bills and sick people who lost insurance when they also lost their jobs is going to make the clamor for Medicare for All too loud for even Washington to ignore.

If worker unrest and solidarity grows (and it probably will), universal health care won’t be the only radical change on the horizon. No matter who ends up in the White House in 2021, anything resembling the Great Depression of FDR’s time is likely to bring about something resembling a second New Deal, with mandatory paid sick leave, a college debt cancellation, a guaranteed living wage and the return of a working social safety net. It’s not too alarmist to think that the alternatives are the things that FDR staved off in 1933 — fascism, or revolution. Americans have shown in recent weeks that we are a good people. Like we did several generations ago, let’s overcome “fear itself” and do the right things for our nation.



Will Bunch is the national opinion columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.


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