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Where’s the Money for Health Care and Saving the Planet? Well, We Clearly Have It.

The necessary response to the COVID outbreak shows how foolish politicians have been to say there's no money for the things the US—and the world—so desperately need.

Remember hearing at the debates that we can’t afford health care or saving the planet? (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Remember hearing at the debates that we can’t afford health care or saving the planet? (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

With an unprecedented $2 trillion economic stabilization package at last finalized, and a flood of cash and credit emanating from the government to stem the dual crises of pandemic and economic meltdown—now more than $3.5 trillion and counting—America’s priorities and vast resources are being unmasked for all to see.

As the human and financial toll spread out of control, the Federal Reserve injected an unprecedented $1.5 trillion in emergency loans into flailing markets—what one economist termed a “fiscal bazooka.” Now, the White House and Congress have at last agreed on a $2.2 trillion economic stabilization package for a mix of industries, medical supplies, and checks of up to $1,200 for millions of Americans.

Amazing what’s suddenly possible when everyone recognizes the necessity for swift action.

The massive aid package retains profound economic and policy inequities: $500 billion in bailout aid and loans for corporations, half that amount to middle- and lower-income Americans, and a meager $130 billion to hard-pressed hospitals. Republican senators were doggedly trying to strip worker protections from the deal; even in this moment of severe and intensifying crisis, Republicans are doing their damnedest to preserve and expand corporate power.

The Trump administration’s criminally belated and brutally inadequate response has revealed a deeper perilous negligence, and an opportunity for change—the immense resources that can be expended to address a crisis once it is deemed urgent and life-threatening. Amazing what’s suddenly possible when everyone recognizes the necessity for swift action.

Nobody can argue against the critical need to vastly expand medical capacity and to help stabilize working people’s lives amid this health crisis which may go on for many months. Unemployment claims have already spiked as mass layoffs loom. The need for medical and financial assistance will likely grow in coming months, as experts warn of an onrushing economic recession or depression.

But this suddenly available torrent of funds raises the question: where were all these supposedly unattainable, unaffordable dollars for the healthcare and climate crises that have been taking lives for years? Remember those distant days just a couple of months ago, when millions of us sat next to each other watching Democratic debates, held in packed auditoriums, when moderators peppered Senator Bernie Sanders about how he’d pay for Medicare for All and a Green New Deal?

No moderator in any debate ever asked how candidates would pay for military expansions, wars, and interventions—not once. Nobody ever asked how the candidates would pay for today’s vastly unequal economy and taxation system, wherein mega-billionaires like Jeff Bezos don’t have to pay their fair share (or much of anything at all in some cases);what about all that lost money, which belongs to the public pie?

Where have all the politicians and dollars been for all these decades of deadly climate havoc, which poses a far graver mass existential threat than the current horrifying moment? Where have all the politicians and dollars been for all these years when many thousands of Americans have died due to lack of healthcare? Where have those fiscal questions and humanitarian concerns been when it came to preventing this massive loss of life stemming from our privatized for-profit healthcare system?

The answer, of course, is that the dollars and resources have been here all along—but the political will and urgency have been missing in what can only be considered a form of mass homicide.

The parallels between the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare, and the climate crisis are inescapably real and direct. As author Mike Davis explains, America’s systemic disinvestment and privatization of healthcare and hospitals since the Reagan era has left us horribly  unprepared for this public health disaster: “According to the American Hospital Association, the number of in-patient hospital beds declined by an extraordinary 39 percent between 1981 and 1999,” Davis reports. “The purpose was to raise profits by increasing ‘census’ (the number of occupied beds). But management’s goal of 90 percent occupancy meant that hospitals no longer had the capacity to absorb patient influx during epidemics and medical emergencies.”

Healthcare and hospitals for profit have severely undermined our nation’s readiness for a pandemic—exacerbating the extent of illness and death. Answering this nightmare requires more than quarantines. To stem this pandemic and minimize harm from the next one, we need dramatic overhaul of our healthcare system.

Dr. Michele Barry, an infectious disease expert at Stanford University, explains that human climate-wrecking activities such as deforestation may have contributed to previous viral pandemics such as the Zika outbreak in Brazil. “There’s been a lot of interesting discussion how deforestation may have played a role in that, and higher temperatures may have played a role in changing vectors, mosquito vectors in that role,” Barry said on Democracy Now, while assuring that mosquitos are not contributing to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The global climate crisis is killing people, right now, due to willful political negligence and a larger systemic madness also known as capitalism. The World Health Organization predicts that between 2030 and 2050, “climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress.”

Where is the urgency and investment to prevent that human-propelled pandemic? Can you imagine the funds and response that would be immediately available if a new virus were killing that many people in the US? Why not the same urgency and action for a climate meltdown that is already killing people around the world and only growing more ferocious as we ignore, deny, and delay?

Many groups are in fact highlighting how a Green New Deal could help address many of the challenges we are now facing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Whenever we emerge from this viral nightmare, we will need to create millions of new jobs for people to rebuild their lives—and those jobs must involve climate-healing, community repairing work rather than digging our deadly climate hole yet deeper.

Crises like this are a time for compassionate action as well as reflection and change. Now is the time to create a healthcare system and economy that will help prevent and minimize the next pandemic. That means universal single-payer healthcare that provides testing and treatment for all, and a Green New Deal that creates millions of living-wage jobs to stabilize our now-teetering and soon-cratering economy while repairing climate harm that contributes to death and pandemics.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has made clear, we have more-than-ample resources to create these vital changes now. We can and must address the present nightmare by laying the economic, ecological, and public-health groundwork to prevent the next one.

Christopher D. Cook

Christopher D. Cook

Christopher D. Cook is an award-winning journalist and author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis. Cook has written for Harper's, The Economist, Mother Jones, The Christian Science Monitor and elsewhere. See more of his work at www.christopherdcook.com.

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