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Ironically enough, Bernie Sanders' policies could have saved us from coronavirus

Please don't clutch your pearls about 'politicizing a crisis'. This crisis is political

Bonny Brooks
New York
Wednesday 11 March 2020 20:22 GMT
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Bernie Sanders: In order to win in the future, you need to win the voters who represent the future of our country

After more disappointing results for Bernie Sanders’ camp on Mini Super Tuesday, it seems clear that the senator now has almost no chance of winning the Democratic nomination. Swathes of progressives see their dreams in tatters, as a back-to-normal agenda looks set to dominate in the run-up to November (a normalcy that, it must be said, delivered Trump in the first place).

What’s ironic is that the writing on the wall comes precisely when – amid an emerging public health crisis – the case for Bernie’s “not me, us” politics should have played strongest on the national stage. If anything might have made a broad-appeal case for Sanders' platform, coronavirus was it.

Yes, the coronavirus is political. Sanders presumably didn’t make more of the issue because his staff knew that anyone who dared to raise the point would be accused of “cynically politicizing a crisis”. But honestly, in a country with no federal sick leave mandate and no integrated healthcare system, is there anything more political than a public health emergency?

Coronavirus proves that “I got mine” politics takes even its victors only so far. Yes, most people with CoVid-19 will be fine, but they are likely to spread it to many others, too many of whom will not. (Don’t listen to anyone who tells you it’s flu – the fatality rate is currently 3.4 per cent compared with seasonal flu’s 0.1 per cent.) An illness with no cure means that even monied, insured-to-the-eyeballs people can succumb. In fact, pensioners receiving healthcare through Medicare who might otherwise shrug at the plight of the uninsured and underinsured are most vulnerable to coronavirus complications (and are also more likely to vote).

With a threadbare public health response and poorly integrated services, an illness like this can spread quietly but ferociously. We’ve also seen the weakness of the Trump administration’s isolationist policy when weeks ago, the World Health Organization sent testing kits to some 60 nations and the Trump administration declined – insisting that the Center for Disease Control would make its own tests thankyou-very-much.

When the CDC tests did first appear, they were faulty, allowing who-knows-how-many coronavirus cases to slip into the general populace. This is hardly an advertisement for an “America alone” approach.

With no joined-up healthcare system to speak of, coronavirus testing is patchy and mostly privately contracted. Yes, tests conducted by the CDC or a city or state public health lab are free. But these represent only a small proportion of the tests that are needed, and the criteria for them has been so stringent that one sick Seattle man, who had recently returned from Wuhan, didn’t even meet the threshold. When state officials pushed and he was eventually screened, his case was confirmed. A lack of joined-up working among federal departments such as the CDC and FDA has also pushed scientists with ready tests from pillar to post, while the clock ticks.

Add to all these issues the absence of a federal law mandating paid sick leave, and people will be forced to go to work ill, infecting others.

Of course, there is every chance that pointing all this out would not have worked anyway because pearl-clutching about “politicizing tragedy” often lands. But regardless, it was worth a shot for no other reason than it is true. Crises expose weaknesses in systems. To take a flip-side example, in the 1990s when North Korea faced food shortages, its command economy was completely incapable of adequately responding and amid famine the (black) market took over, with entrepreneurial (and often criminal) ingenuity saving many lives. A kind of inverted case can be made here. A crisis that exposes the shared risks every society faces demonstrates the inherent weaknesses in a severely fragmented healthcare system (if one can even call it a ‘system’) and a dearth of sick leave provision. Whether or not you think Sanders could have achieved universal healthcare, someone needs to try.

More than anyone over the last few years, Bernie Sanders has changed the conversation, with his early dominance in the primary forcing more centrist candidates to make more progressive noises on healthcare and taxation. Now, after a Biden beating, progressives await the next phase with sadness and trepidation; especially since there is certainly no guarantee that Biden can beat Trump.

Admittedly, the coronavirus crisis will likely bring the Trump administration and House Democrats thinking closer together than usual, with talks said to be underway between Nancy Pelosi and Steven Mnuchin regarding issues like paid sick leave. But whatever emergency measures are brought in now, the CoVid-19 emergency highlights the inherent weaknesses in an “I got mine” approach to social policy. And with Biden currently offering little more than vague “listen to the experts, folks” platitudes, it’s a shame that Bernie’s agenda will likely be tossed aside by mainstream Democrats.

“Not me, us” politics is about shared destiny, and nothing makes the case for it quite like CoVid-19.

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