For the past few months I’ve observed with great concern the slow progression of a devastating pandemic. I had hoped that the whole nation would focus its attention on the health crisis as well, but it’s been a distracting year so far. The Zika virus has slowly closed in on American shores. The Center for Disease Control announced that as of last week, 7,350 cases have been reported in the United States and on Puerto Rico.
I first paid attention to this crisis because of a December 2015 New York Times article about how women were delivering babies in Brazil with microcephaly due to the virus. I approached it analytically – I presumed it was the result of the impact of climate change on the transmission of viruses. Then, when the Zika virus made landfall in Puerto Rico, where I grew up, I became more concerned because of the terrible financial crisis the island was suffering. As it reached stateside and blew through Miami, where I went to graduate school, my concerns have become ever more personal, especially because we are going through a particularly hot and humid summer.
In early February, President Barack Obama submitted an emergency request to Congress for $1.9 billion and it has been tied up in debate ever since. I’m sad to say that once again, Congressional leadership refused to be proactive on Zika for ideological reasons, holding up legislation over issues like access to birth control and abortion. Common sense just flew out the window. Though the leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, among others, have been shouting from the rooftops for Speaker Paul Ryan to take care of the emergency funding to address Zika, their appeals have fallen on deaf ears.
President Obama has now been forced to steal from Peter to pay Paul, knitting together resources from many smaller funds that also address critical needs, but are currently deemed less urgent than the Zika emergency. I’m sure conservatives and Obama’s opponents will be furious because he took action without permission. But what is the alternative? Speaker Ryan must call an emergency session to address this emergency and shut down the doors of the Capitol building until both houses of Congress find a solution.
Government has a critical role to play in American citizens’ lives and those of their families. How we address this type of crisis now will determine the expectations and capacities for times to come. Ranting and raving about how government spends too much money instead of sitting down and prioritizing solutions is irresponsible – especially for elected leaders. It’s their role to debate ideas and put them on the table as possible policy solutions.
We’ve seen responses like this before. The AIDS crisis during the Reagan years resulted in thousands of unnecessary deaths because of slow government action. Today it’s Zika. Tomorrow it will be something else. The 21st century is complex for the million and one reasons we all know of. Our government as elected through our democratic processes is what stands between us and crisis – it’s the stop-gap that buys us time to adjust. To Members of Congress who have not yet made this a priority – regardless of party – I urge you to treat this like the health crisis that it is. Congress is critical to finding solutions for national crises. Its job is to approve budgets and emergency funding. Start debating and stop starving government. Every single one of us depends on it.