This Is The Challenge of Our Time

Are we up to it?


I’m not young but I’m not quite old enough to remember it, the fear, I mean. I remember stories told about it.

A silent, invisible threat attacking children mostly, leaving them paralyzed for life, sometimes dead.

I remember hearing the term “iron lung,” which sounded monstrous, the stuff of night terrors.

It was an ageless enemy, visible in ancient Egyptian paintings. But it was elusive, gone as suddenly as it had appeared and it never impacted as many as this time, in 1952.

And it was random. No one could say who would be struck down next, even a future President:

Yes, it struck down adults too, but it was the children dropping so suddenly and irrevocably that created the panic, the terror, the impetus to finally solve this puzzle.

The history of the virus is as old as humankind. It has been a relentless killer and adept at evolving to overcome our defenses, especially influenza.

Still, I think the last time our nation faced this sort of fear was that last bout of polio, which ended with the creation of the polio vaccine by Dr. Jonas Salk in 1955. It has largely eradicated polio worldwide.

When asked who owned the patent for the vaccine he developed, Dr. Salk replied: “Well, the people I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?The vaccine is calculated to be worth $7 billion had it been patented. Can you imagine such selflessness in our America?

Today, we find ourselves beset by a novel coronavirus, Covid-19. It’s extremely virulent, and it’s almost randomly deadly, though those with underlying health issues common in America — obesity, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes — are especially at risk.

These are all a result of our political and economic choices. In our constant, breathless rush to acquire, we have been willing to sacrifice our health, mental and physical, our relationships, even our environment.

We are the most medicated people on earth and spend more on health care than any other nation, yet by most objective standards, less healthy than we used to be. Suicides were up before Covid struck.

No one has immunity. Not the wealthy. Not the powerful. Not the youngest of us.

And that’s the main factor in the world shutting itself down, to try to contain the virus before it lays waste to tens of millions of people as the Influenza of 1918 did.

We, in America, were spectacularly unprepared for this challenge we now face.

We’ve never solved the problem of universal health coverage in our nation: tens of millions still do not have it, and that number has actually risen dramatically over the past month as millions have lost their jobs, because in the United States, employers are most often the providers of health insurance.

Despite the glowing reports President Trump routinely gives himself for the state of the economy before Covid struck, “Almost 40% of American adults wouldn’t be able to cover a $400 emergency with cash, savings or a credit-card charge that they could quickly pay off, a Federal Reserve survey finds.”

44% of U.S. workers are employed in low-wage jobs that pay median annual wages of $18,000. Most of the 53 million Americans working in low-wage jobs are adults in their prime working years, or between about 25 to 54, they noted. Their median hourly wage is $10.22 per hour — that’s above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour but well below what’s considered the living wage for many regions.”

This is a problem that started more than 40 years ago. The economy has been fabulous for some, but mostly terrifyingly unforgiving for too many.

So even if our federal government response to Covid-19 had been everything it could have been — hundreds of millions of virus testing kits, plenty of PPE, a vibrant, well-staffed public health system, lots of available hospital beds, ventilators, and critical care doctors and nurses — tens of millions would still be vulnerable because they cannot afford NOT to work.

They simply have no economic flexibility, and it’s not their fault if they’re working full time and making less than $20,000 a year.

We call them “essential,” but we certainly don’t pay them that way. Grocery store employees, truck drivers, farmers, meatpacking plant workers, orderlies, bus drivers, janitors, garbage collectors, maids waiters and waitresses. The list is so long because our economy has evolved to pay a minority of us extraordinarily well, but those that make our lives easier, more pleasant, possible, not so much.

There’s been blow-back about upping the minimum wage to $15 an hour. IF employers would let you work 40 hours a week at $15 an hour, without any vacation, you’d gross $31,200 a year. But most employers don’t let you work 40 hours, and they don’t pay $15 an hour to their hourly staff anyway.

Why? They don’t want to have to pay for medical benefits.

Try living on $30,000 a year and still paying for health insurance for your family, and rent, and food, and utilities, and your car and your gas. It’s simply not possible.

So, I understand the protests about people needing to work. They can’t live another week without income. They can’t afford to buy food for their children, and they are now forced to risk their lives to do so.

It’s heartbreaking to see hundreds of cars lined up at food distribution centers, waiting for hours for a box of groceries.

This —THIS — is America now.

In Europe, governments have stepped in to pay workers who have been forced to stop working because of this virus. That has allowed most companies to refrain from firing large numbers of their work force, and it has kept the workers from desperation and starvation. It has made self-quarantining much easier.

It has stabilized the societal impact of this pandemic by removing the stress of wondering if you’ll ever get your job back.

With hindsight, our federal government should have been ready with several basic economic programs:

  • Freezing rent, mortgage and car payments for 6 months, with no added principal or interest or downgrading of your credit score. This would apply to landlords as well as renters. The banks and hedge funds that hold these loans can afford it.
  • Freezing the repayment for student loans, no matter who holds them, for 6 months as with rents and mortgages.
  • An “emergency fund” for truly essential services to help most businesses weather this storm (don’t forget, we’re almost 3 trillion dollars into this sort of help already, but it’s been uneven, often unavailable for the businesses and individuals that need it most).
  • Legislation that guarantees 80% of an employee’s wages IF the employer does not fire them or eliminate their jobs during the emergency.
  • Affordable, universal health care. We’re way behind the curve on this one, and we can no longer afford to pretend otherwise.

I do not claim to have all the answers.

But this searing experience we’re all living through together must be the catalyst that brings us to whatever our future will look like, with major changes in “business as usual.

America has “the second-highest poverty rate and the highest level of income inequality, and though we spend more on health care than any other country, our life expectancy lags other wealthy nations. In 2018, 28 million Americans still had no health insurance.” *(Max Boot, The Washington Post)

Just as The Great Depression finally created the will to provide a safety net for the millions who would have died without it, our time of disease and death and economic ruin can lead to a more compassionate, fair, and just society, the kind of society America has always promised but made almost impossible for half a century.

We, voters, control what happens. It’s up to us this coming November, so if we don’t make it happen, shame on us.

Who’s responsible for this catastrophe we’re in the midst of?

Who’s responsible for the undeniable fact that America has more infections and vastly more deaths than any other nation on earth dealing with Covid-19?

We are, because we’ve allowed the conditions that have led to it.

This is on us.