Health care has been a top issue throughout this election cycle. But now, it feels even more like a matter of life and death with the worldwide spread of COVID-19, also known as coronavirus. (It’s actually one of multiple coronaviruses.)
What does this current coronavirus panic say about the state of our health care system? And really, what can and should we do to solve this growing problem?
Why are we so afraid of coronavirus?
As of now, there are no known cases of COVID-19/coronavirus here in Nevada. And last Friday, Governor Steve Sisolak (D) held a press conference with state and local health officials to reassure Nevadans that they’re prepared to handle the virus should it arrive here.
As of today, COVID-19 has infected over 89,000 people in 60 countries, including at least 80 reported cases here in the U.S. Just last week, UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento diagnosed a patient with coronavirus who hadn’t traveled to China (where the virus originated late last year) or another affected country. And just yesterday, Washington State health officials confirmed that six of their residents died after contracting COVID-19.
While its roughly 2% mortality rate means contraction of coronavirus isn’t an immediate death sentence for most people, it is nonetheless far more fatal than the typical flu bug (which averages a 0.1% mortality rate). And while America theoretically should be a country that’s far more prepared to handle a pandemic than most everywhere else, the reality of America’s broken health care system suggests we’re at greater risk than we care to admit.
No, Trump hasn’t made America’s health care great again. (Rather, he’s breaking the system further.)
In the last few days, a growing number of health care experts have come to admit that the coronavirus particularly poses a great threat to Americans’ health because far too many Americans are uninsured or underinsured. Even for some Americans who do have the kind of health insurance that typically meets their needs, the threat of pricey medical bills and lost wages and income may deter people from seeking the treatment they need, including preventive care.
As of 2019, 27.9 million Americans are uninsured and another 44 million lack sufficient insurance coverage to handle all their health care needs. And as we’ve discussed before, the Affordable Care Act (ACA, or Obamacare) has helped in bringing these numbers down from their pre-2010 highs, but they have been creeping higher since President Donald Trump began undermining the health care law. And because the ACA didn’t take on all our health care problems, America will ultimately need to do more to finally bring down health care costs and take on these uninsured and underinsured rates, as universal and affordable health care means more Americans will be able to get the care they need regardless of whether a global pandemic spreads into their communities.
To make matters even worse, the Trump administration has already been “repealing and replacing” respected health care experts with apparatchiks and cronies who care more about Trump’s poll numbers and who won Time’s “Person of the Year” recognition than preventing further deaths and lasting injuries. Last Friday in South Carolina, Trump himself called this coronavirus “[Democrats’] new hoax”. And behind the scenes, Trump has put more effort into controlling the media narrative on COVID-19 and setting up his own Health and Human Services Secretary as the “fall guy” than actually controlling further spread of the virus.
So what should we do instead?
When we should be ensuring that all Americans have access to medicine and treatment, Congress is instead debating Trump’s budget proposal that cuts $920 billion from Medicaid, along with Trump’s proposal for further cuts to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on top of the current 80% budget cut to programs specifically tuned to tackle global disease outbreaks.
Basically, this is akin to throwing matches and lighter fluid into an already raging wildfire. In the near term, the CDC and other federal health agencies need more funding and better resources so that they’re better equipped to actually work with state and local health officials and work with the international community to contain further spreading of COVID-19 and save more lives.
In the longer term, we need to (again) rethink how we do health care in this country. Why are so many Americans more afraid of their medical bills than they are of coronavirus? For all the campaign trail freak-outs over the cost of “Medicare for All” single-payer health care, COVID-19 serves as a very sorrowful reminder of the cost of allowing 70 million+ Americans to remain uninsured or underinsured, therefore placing 70 million or more people at severe risk of lacking the resources they need to prevent contraction of such a virus or successfully treating it.
As then U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., wrote in a 1927 opinion, “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society, including the chance to insure.” And contrary to what you might think while listening to that Dire Straits song, there really is no such thing as “money for nothing, [kicks] for free”. If we want the best medical treatment, we have to pay for it. If we want everyone to have the health care they need, we have to pay for it. And ultimately, it makes more sense to make the investment that will pay dividends than to pay a steeper price for being “penny wise and pound foolish” with our refusal to invest in medical research and treatment along with universal health care.
So what can we do about COVID-19 in the meantime?
In the absence of sufficient action from the Trump administration, states like Washington and California have tried to step up to fill that void. We’re also seeing Nevada leaders try to fill this void. But as we’ve previously discussed (and as the Nevada Current’s Hugh Jackson helpfully reminds everyone now), Nevada probably doesn’t have enough sufficiently funded public infrastructure and social safety net programs to make up for the lack of sufficient federal action.
As for what we can do ourselves and for each other, remember to apply basic self-care like washing your hands (including scrubbing for at least 20 seconds), covering your mouth when coughing and/or sneezing, and seeking early medical help if you’re noticing any of the coronavirus symptoms. If you can’t afford a trip to the hospital or doctor’s office, check this list of 59 low and no cost health clinics across Nevada. If you can afford proper treatment and you are fortunate enough to help others in need, please support organizations like Mutual Aid Disaster Relief that provide direct aid to those who need it.
These coronavirus headlines may read and sound awfully terrifying, but we don’t help anyone by panicking. This is increasingly becoming a real, worldwide health crisis, and it will take real action around the world and closer to home to actually solve it.