We have also learned that healthcare is a right, billionaires are often wrong –and conspiracy theories can often prove deadly
Last modified on Sun 23 May 2021 01.02 EDT
Maybe it’s wishful thinking to declare the pandemic over in the US, and presumptuous to conclude what lessons we’ve learned. So consider this a first draft.
1. Workers are always essential
We couldn’t have survived without millions of warehouse, delivery, grocery and hospital workers literally risking their lives. Yet most of these workers are paid squat. Amazon touts its $15 minimum wage but it totals only about $30,000 a year. Most essential workers don’t have health insurance or paid leave. Many of their employers (including Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, to take but two examples) didn’t give them the personal protective equipment they needed.
Lesson: Essential workers deserve far better.
2. Healthcare is a basic right
You know how you got your vaccine without paying a dime? That’s how all healthcare could be. Yet too many Americans who contracted Covid-19 got walloped with humongous hospital bills. By mid-2020, about 3.3 million people had lost employer-sponsored coverage and the number of uninsured had increased by 1.9 million. Research by the Urban Institute found that people with chronic disease, Black Americans and low-income children were most likely to have delayed or foregone care during the pandemic.
Lesson: America must insure everyone.
3. Conspiracy theories can be deadly
Last June, about one in four Americans believed the pandemic was “definitely” or “probably” created intentionally, according to the Pew Research Center. Other conspiracy theories have caused some people to avoid wearing masks or getting vaccinated, resulting in unnecessary illness or death.
Lesson: An informed public is essential. Some of the responsibility falls on all of us. Some of it on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms that allowed misinformation to flourish.
4. The stock market isn’t the economy
The stock market rose throughout the pandemic, lifting the wealth of the richest 1% who own half of all stock owned by Americans. Meanwhile, from March 2020 to February 2021 80 million in the US lost their jobs. Between June and November 2020, nearly 8 million fell into poverty. Black and Latino adults were more than twice as likely as white adults to report not having enough to eat: 16% each for Black and Latino adults, compared to 6% of white adults.
Lesson: Stop using the stock market as a measure of economic wellbeing. Look instead at the percentage of Americans who are working, and their median pay.
5. Wages are too low to get by on
Most Americans live paycheck to paycheck. So once the pandemic hit, many didn’t have any savings to fall back on. Conservative lawmakers complain that the extra $300 a week unemployment benefit Congress enacted in March discourages people from working. What’s really discouraging them is lack of childcare and lousy wages.
Lesson: Raise the minimum wage, strengthen labor unions and push companies to share profits with their workers.
6. Remote work is now baked into the economy
The percentage of workers punching in from home hit a high of 70% in April 2020. A majority still work remotely. Some 40% want to continue working from home.
Two lessons: Companies will have to adjust. And much commercial real estate will remain vacant. Why not convert it into affordable housing?
7. Billionaires aren’t the answer
The combined wealth of America’s 657 billionaires grew by $1.3tn – or 44.6% – during the pandemic. Jeff Bezos, with $183.9bn, became the richest man in the world. Larry Page, a co-founder of Google, added $11.8bn to his $94.3bn fortune. Sergey Brin, Google’s other co-founder, added $11.4bn. Yet billionaires’ taxes are lower than ever. Wealthy Americans today pay one-sixth the rate of taxes their counterparts paid in 1953.
Lesson: To afford everything the nation needs, raise taxes at the top.
8. Government can be the solution
Ronald Reagan’s famous quip – “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem” – can now officially be retired. Trump’s “Operation Warp Speed” succeeded in readying vaccines faster than most experts thought possible. Biden got them into more arms more quickly than any vaccination program in history.
Furthermore, the $900bn in aid Congress passed in late December prevented millions from losing unemployment benefits and helped sustain the recovery when it was faltering. The $1.9tn Democrats pushed through in March will help the US achieve something it failed to achieve after the 2008-09 recession: a robust recovery.
Lesson: The federal government did not just help beat the pandemic. It also did more to keep the nation afloat than in any previous recession. It must be prepared to do so again.
Robert Reich, a former US secretary of labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few and The Common Good. His new book, The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It, is out now. He is a columnist for Guardian US
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