America needs to prepare for the next pandemic
It is already time to start thinking about the next pandemic.
We are knee-deep in the current outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus, which is likely to get considerably worse before it gets better. Every hour brings more reports of new infections, more deaths, the closures of schools, and the quarantining of entire regions. The effects these developments will have on the economy are potentially devastating. This is a bad moment for America — and the world.
The terrifying nature of the outbreak has been exacerbated by the exceeding foolishness of President Trump, who sees this public health emergency as an occasion — like all occasions — to magnify his own glory. His Friday news conference at the Centers for Disease Control, where he bragged about his understanding of medical science — "Every one of these doctors said, 'How do you know so much about this?' Maybe I have a natural ability." — was infuriatingly absurd.
Meanwhile, the public is continually presented with fresh evidence that Trump and his cronies are botching the virus response. There aren't enough tests to track the outbreak. Decisions are being made that place Trump's poll numbers as a higher priority than public health. Even as the situation worsens, the president tries to steer blame to the media and Democrats. "Donald Trump is incapable of truth, heedless of science, and hostage to the demands of his insatiable ego," The New Yorker's David Remnick wrote over the weekend.
There is a temptation to wallow in anger at the president's ineptitude and inadequacies, but there is no time for that. Barring unexpected events, Trump will occupy the White House at least until next January. So the smart thing to do now is to start thinking about the next pandemic — the one that comes after this president leaves office.
We are, after all, already learning lessons that, properly heeded, might make the next big viral outbreak much easier to weather. Some preparations we need to make before then:
America should increase funding for local health departments. As The Washington Post points out, "decades of budget cuts have left many local departments without the staff, equipment, or plans to mount an adequate response." Local public health agencies have cut 60,000 employees — a quarter of their workforce — since 2008. The result? In San Bernardino, California, for example, most of the coronavirus work is being handled by three paid interns.
This is one area where federal leadership would help greatly, but state and local governments don't have to wait. They can choose, for the sake of the public health, to make their own big investments so that local health departments are once again equal to the task.
We need a more robust safety net. On Sunday, the U.S. Surgeon General's office tweeted a plea for employers to give workers paid sick leave: "PLEASE understand giving your employees flexibility and (paid) sick leave will save you money in the long run — it's much cheaper than shutting down because everyone else gets sick!" That's a sensible plea, but it would be even more sensible for the federal government to make paid sick leave a requirement for employers. Workers who fear losing a job, or even a day's wages, often show up on the job even when they're feeling ill. That endangers their coworkers, customers, and everybody else they encounter.
But the feds shouldn't stop there. The coronavirus is a strong argument for expanding America's health insurance safety net to match what is offered in European countries. "Europe's universal health-care systems, for example, help bolster the economy by supporting consumer spending in the midst of a serious outbreak, because people aren't worried about getting a big bill if they get sick," The New York Times reported Saturday. One good starting point: The 14 states that haven't expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act should finally take that step in order to protect the health and well-being of their citizens from emergencies like the ones we are experiencing now.
It is time every American had home access to high-speed broadband internet. Even in a best-case scenario, pandemics can force the implementation of "social distancing" techniques like asking some employees to stay at home, or closing schools for weeks at a time and requiring students to continue their educations online. The problem? About a third of all U.S. households lack broadband internet. That means there is a potential for the coronavirus to separate a generation of students into educational haves and have-nots if schools do close for any length of time; the same could be true for office workers. Is internet access "a basic human right?" If it is the only means to access work and education, the answer is probably yes. LBJ famously brought electricity to rural Texas as a young congressman; it is time for a new generation to ensure poor and rural Americans can easily go online.
Having such services and requirements in place would, of course, make America a better place to live even when it isn't threatened by a global pandemic. That is why we shouldn't wait until the next outbreak to implement these ideas on an emergency basis — let's have them ready and running so the country can be more prepared and resilient when bad times come. President Trump is failing the test posed by the coronavirus; we have it in our power to ensure his successors are much better prepared.
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