How the pandemic exposes irrationalities in our social system

by Emrys Westacott

The current Covid 19 pandemic is undoubtedly a disaster for millions of people: for those who die, who grieve for the dead, who suffer through a traumatic illness, or who, suddenly lacking work and income, face the prospect of dire poverty as the inevitable recession kicks in. And there are other bad consequences that one might not describe as ‘disastrous” but which are certainly significant: the stress experienced by all those providing care for the sick; the interruption in the education of students; the strain put on families holed up together perhaps for months on end; the loneliness suffered by those who are truly isolated; and the blighted career prospects of new graduates in both the public and the private sectors.

No-one knows what the long-term, or even the short-term consequences of the pandemic will be, either for any particular country or for the world as a whole. It’s conceivable that in some places things could eventually tilt toward the sort of apocalyptic break down of civil society often depicted in dystopian fiction. Perhaps more plausibly, it could lead to the further erosion of democratic rights in at least some countries. This has already happened in Hungary, where the parliament recently voted to give the Prime Minister, Victor Orban, the power to rule by decree for an unlimited period, during which time there can be no elections. But it is also possible that the current crisis will be the occasion for a fundamental rethink about the character of the society we wish to live in. Let us hope so.

This hope could, of course, be just naïve wishful thinking. History offers plenty of example of well-intentioned pledges to learn from the past being buried beneath forgetfulness, indifference, incompetence, prejudice, ideology, and vested interests. But the pandemic is undeniably effective at exposing some of the most obvious flaws in the socio-economic organization of countries like the US (and, to a lesser extent, other modernized capitalist societies). And by “flaws,” here, I don’t mean minor inefficiencies that can be removed with a bureaucratic tweak, but profound irrationalities linked to objectionable values.

For example:

The homeless: In California, the governor recently announced that the state has found 15,000 rooms in hotels and motels where the homeless can be housed. The federal government pledged $3 billion to help with efforts to reduce the number of homeless during the pandemic. This raises an obvious question: Why only help the homeless during the worst of times? The cynical answer, of course, is that politicians and respectable tax-paying citizens are willing to help the homeless when doing so is a matter of self-defense–in this case, against the spreading of the virus. But now that we are forced to think about the homeless, and about just how many of them there are, and about they might be helped, we should ask further questions. Why are there over half a million homeless people in the US? Why this many when there are over 17 million vacant homes in the country? Is that rational? Is it moral?

Health care: The pandemic is putting health care systems under enormous pressure. When resources are overwhelmed by the number of sick people needing treatment, wrenching decisions have to be made about who should be given priority. Anyone who suggested that priority be given to those who can afford to pay the most would be reviled. Yet in ordinary times, in the US and in many other countries, it’s common for the well-off to get better care than the less well-off.[1] There are all sorts of reasons for this, from the existence of ‘executive lists’ of rich donors to people having good, bad, or no health insurance. Even in countries like the UK, where the NHS is supposed to treat all equally, private health insurance and private medicine allows some queue jumping at times. And a number of people have observed that during the last month, even though there was a serious shortage of reliable testing kits for the coronavirus, the rich and famous–for instance, Prince Charles, and the entire New Jersey Nets basketball team–seem to have no difficulty getting themselves tested.

But the pandemic helps to remind us all of what ought to be a basic ethical principle underlying any civilized health care: namely, neither the provision nor the quality of care should be determined by how much money a person has. Allowing this to happen should be viewed in the same light as letting a person’s race or religion affect the quality of care they receive.

In the US, the pandemic also highlights another failing of the health care system. The federal government has said that anyone can be tested for the corona virus for free. That’s good. But the treatment for those who fall sick can be crushingly expensive. A report in Time described how one woman who had to make several trips to the ER room was handed a bill for almost $35,000.[2] So in addition to the trauma of falling ill with a dangerous illness, people have to worry about the possibility of being bankrupted. And this at a time when it’s quite likely that many of them have just become unemployed.

Quite apart from any ethical failings, the American health care system is just nuts! And the pandemic highlights this. Sick people are discouraged from seeking treatment because they worry about the cost, thus making it more likely that they’ll infect others. Meanwhile, as overwhelmed hospitals are in near melt-down mode, staff still have to record the details of every treatment with a view to producing an itemized bill for every patient. But the free testing policy just introduced points to how things could be so much simpler. Free treatment for all. No insurance. No bills. No worries.

Work: Suddenly, millions of people who had jobs are unemployed. In this situation, it’s obviously not possible to brand them as “shirkers” or “scroungers.” The situation immediately underscores the importance of a decent safety net in the form of the welfare state. Strict libertarians, who despise most government programs and would like, in the words of Grover Norquist, to shrink the government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bath tub,” oppose welfare programs in general. In this situation, the only help they envisage the unemployed receiving is charity. The current crisis reveals the moral bankruptcy of that view–a view that has underlain the neo-liberalism of the past forty years.

An important short-term measure proposed in the US and elsewhere in response to the crisis is to extend unemployment benefit. But the calamitous rise in unemployment raises all sorts of questions about the character and terms of employment these days. Neo-liberals celebrate the “flexibility” of the gig economy. But of course, the benefits of this flexibility are enjoyed by the employers, not by the employees. All too often what the latter experience is not flexibility but uncertainty and anxiety. Do we want a society where such high levels of anxiety are the norm? Where people who do really valuable work (like caregiving) are so poorly paid,? Where many are overworked and many are underemployed (which is what we normally have anyway, and is now what we look like having in spades)? Wouldn’t a redistribution of work make sense, perhaps engineered in part through public employment programs?

Wealth People worry about the deficits that government are running as they try to prevent economies falling into severe recession. But there really is a fairly obvious solution–viz. progressive taxation. There is plenty of money swishing around in modernized societies. It’s just that the distribution of wealth has become increasingly lopsided. While Jeff Bezos and co. add daily to their billions, children go to school hungry.Again, on has to ask: Is that rational? Is it moral?

One could go on! There are plenty of other irrationalities exposed by the pandemic. At bottom, though, the question all come down to questions about the moral character of our society. The pandemic exposes what is wrong with the excessive individualism that has been both cause and effect of the uglier aspects of contemporary capitalism. And it points out a different direction, to a world in which the resources and benefits of society are shared more equally, distributed less by the anarchic power of market forces and more according to people’s contributions and needs.

[1] See, for instance, Rex Weiner, “Keeping the Wealthy Healthy–and Everyone Else Waiting. Inequality.org. https://inequality.org/research/keeping-wealthy-healthy-everyone-else-waiting/

[2] https://time.com/5806312/coronavirus-treatment-cost/

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