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Looming Coronavirus Threat in US Bolsters Case for Medicare for All and Universal Paid Sick Leave

"Doubters may claim that our nation can't afford Medicare for All, but it's increasingly likely that we are about to discover just how costly our current system really is."

People wear medical masks as a precaution against coronavirus, walking around the in the streets of New York, United States on January 30, 2020. (Photo: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

People wear medical masks as a precaution against coronavirus, walking around the in the streets of New York, United States on January 30, 2020. (Photo: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The global coronavirus outbreak which also threatens the United States—and the widely criticized effort by the Trump administration to address it—is offering advocates of both paid sick leave and Medicare for All an opportunity to make the case that such universal social programs are not only morally right but would also serve a key public health function.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was among those who suggested Wednesday that a Medicare for All system—falsely dismissed by Republicans and corporate Democrats as prohibitively expensive and unrealistic—could afford all Americans the ability to see a doctor if they develop the flu-like symptoms associated with coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19.

"I can't tell you how many times the people who handle your food—who are already overworked and underpaid—show up sick to work because our country refuses to guarantee healthcare or paid sick leave."
—Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)
"Let me be clear: it has never been more important to finally guarantee healthcare as a human right by passing Medicare for All," Sanders said in a statement denouncing Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar for refusing to guarantee that a vaccine against the disease would be affordable for all Americans.

A number of critics on social media wrote that the outbreak—in which at least 60 Americans have so far contracted the respiratory illness and more than 82,000 people have worldwide—should cause any Medicare for All skeptic to reconsider their position that the government should not guarantee healthcare to all Americans that would be free at the point of delivery, as it is in most industrialized countries.

"The spread of coronavirus makes one of the strongest cases for why we urgently need Medicare for All," tweeted Rep. Mark Pocan. "If folks can't afford to get tested or treated, how do we manage the spread of disease?"

"If you are a skeptic of Medicare for All, try this. Take note today of the people who come within infecting distance of you," wrote author and MSNBC contributor Anand Giridharadas. "Are you confident they all have access to the care they need to be healthy—and keep you healthy?"

"Coronavirus makes clear what has been true all along," added Giridharadas. "Your health is as safe as that of the worst-insured, worst-cared-for person in your society. It will be decided by the height of the floor, not the ceiling."

In a similar vein, Vox's Matthew Yglesias tweeted, "It seems like even if you, personally, have a very robust health insurance plan there might be upside to living in a society where other people could get their coronavirus symptoms checked out and treated without fear they'd be risking bankruptcy."

Even people who have employer-based health insurance are likely to skip seeing a doctor if they feel ill, said New York Times reporter Sarah Kliff—especially at the beginning of the year when people have likely not met their insurance deductible, allowing their coverage to kick in.

"We have a lot of academic research showing that high deductibles make patients reticent to seek care, even when they need it," tweeted Kliff.

As columnist Helaine Olen wrote Wednesday in the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) reports that more than half of Americans with employer-based insurance have a deductible of at least $1,000. For people who obtain insurance through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplace, the average deductible is about $4,000.

"Viruses and infectious diseases don't check your deductibles, co-pays and network access before they strike," wrote Olen. "Doubters may claim that our nation can't afford Medicare for All, but it's increasingly likely that we are about to discover just how costly our current system really is."

Because many Americans tend to ignore their symptoms to avoid a costly medical bill, millions are likely to go to work even if they're feeling sick, making the spread of coronavirus even more likely.

While other industrialized countries require that employers offer a wide range of paid sick days, with all countries in a 2009 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) offering at least nine days with full pay, the U.S. does not require any paid sick time for workers. 

On average, Americans who do have paid sick days are entitled to up to seven days per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, nearly four in 10 workers—43.5 milllion people—don't have any paid sick leave. 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a vocal advocate for both Medicare for All and a national paid sick leave policy, tweeted that many people in the service industry, where she worked before taking office, come to work sick due to lack of paid leave.

Many of the Americans most likely to ignore any symptoms they feel lack both paid sick leave and health insurance that would allow them to afford testing and treatment for coronavirus, as well as unemployment insurance or other assistance if they're unable to work, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich wrote.

"In other words, most Americans" live in circumstances that would incentivize ignoring their symptoms and potentially spreading their illness, he tweeted.

"Medicare for All is usually presented as a moral argument," wrote Olen. "But this situation is not simply immoral—it also leaves the United States at a major disadvantage when it comes to combating global pandemics."

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