Bernie Just Laid Out a Humane Approach to Dealing with the Coronavirus. Biden Did Not.

In Sunday’s debate, Sanders made a clear-eyed case for taking the profit motive out of healthcare, while Biden railed against “revolution.”

Miles Kampf-Lassin March 16, 2020

Bernie Sanders at the presidential debate in Washington, D.C. on March 15. (Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

Sunday’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic debate fea­tured urgent ques­tions about how pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden would address the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic. As the out­break spreads across the Unit­ed States at a break­neck pace, offi­cials are faced with two paths of how to respond: hand off pub­lic ser­vices and assets to fur­ther enrich the cor­po­rate elite, or expand social pro­grams to pro­tect the work­ing class.

In her influ­en­tial book The Shock Doc­trine: The Rise of Dis­as­ter Cap­i­tal­ism, Nao­mi Klein warned of how free mar­ket fun­da­men­tal­ists exploit crises like 911 and Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na — but at the same time, Klein high­light­ed the oppor­tu­ni­ties for pos­i­tive social change inher­ent in com­mu­nal recov­ery” to cri­sis. As dis­as­ters make appar­ent the deep inequities at the heart of our cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety, they allow us to rethink and, in Klein’s words, remake” the world in order to ben­e­fit work­ing people.

Sanders has laid out an expan­sive vision of gov­ern­ment inter­ven­tion to deal with coro­n­avirus, includ­ing imple­ment­ing a Medicare for All sys­tem to pro­vide uni­ver­sal test­ing and treat­ment for those who con­tract the virus, as well as free health­care going for­ward for all Amer­i­cans, regard­less of income. Sanders also called for guar­an­teed paid sick leave and a nation­al mora­to­ri­um on evic­tions, home fore­clo­sures and util­i­ty shut­offs as imme­di­ate steps to deal with the crisis.

What we’ve got to do is move aggres­sive­ly so that every per­son in this coun­try under­stands that they don’t have to wor­ry about mon­ey for treat­ment. I believe in Medicare for All, I will fight for that as pres­i­dent. Do not wor­ry about the cost right now because we are in the midst of a nation­al emer­gency,” Sanders said dur­ing Sunday’s debate, con­tin­u­ing lat­er, This coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic expos­es the incred­i­ble weak­ness and dys­func­tion­al­i­ty of our cur­rent health­care system.”

Biden, mean­while, has endorsed free test­ing and treat­ment for coro­n­avirus patients and emer­gency paid leave, but refused to back Medicare for All, cit­ing con­cerns about the cost, prag­ma­tism and wis­dom of such a uni­ver­sal system.

You have a sin­gle pay­er sys­tem in Italy, it doesn’t work there. It wouldn’t solve the prob­lem at all,” Biden claimed Sunday.

Biden’s cri­tique miss­es the fact that coro­n­avirus patients in Italy are receiv­ing all of their care free of cost, where­as in the Unit­ed States, the cost of sim­ply get­ting test­ed can reach above $3,000, and the House coro­n­avirus response pack­age recent­ly passed with bipar­ti­san sup­port, which would make test­ing free, has yet to be signed into law.

The safe­ty threat of the cri­sis can’t be over­stat­ed. The New York Times has report­ed that up to 214 mil­lion Amer­i­cans could become infect­ed with the virus — over 60% of the pop­u­la­tion — and 1.7 mil­lion could die. What’s more, up to 21 mil­lion may require hos­pi­tal­iza­tion, while the country’s health­care sys­tem cur­rent­ly has less than 1 mil­lion staffed hos­pi­tal beds. This could lead to a cat­a­stroph­ic result, where the sys­tem becomes over­whelmed and doc­tors are forced to make impos­si­ble deci­sions about which patients get to live and which don’t, as has already been the case in Italy. 

But the poten­tial fall­out from the cri­sis goes much deep­er, threat­en­ing to bank­rupt busi­ness­es and indi­vid­u­als alike as a result of the halt­ing of eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty. Over half of all Amer­i­cans live pay­check to pay­check, rely­ing on a reg­u­lar influx of cash to pay for bills, rent, child­care and health­care costs. If their income is stunt­ed by their work shut­ting down or by get­ting sick and being forced to stay home, these mil­lions of peo­ple face finan­cial dis­as­ter — espe­cial­ly with social safe­ty pro­grams hav­ing been under­mined and restrict­ed in recent years. 

What we have got to address is not just the cur­rent eco­nom­ic cri­sis, but also address the fragili­ty of the econ­o­my, in which so few have so much and so many have so lit­tle,” Sanders said dur­ing the debate.

Biden has used the pan­dem­ic as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to illus­trate the flaws of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion — which are indeed glar­ing — while Sanders has tak­en a wider lens, using it as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to illus­trate the flaws in a soci­ety that pri­or­i­tizes prof­it above all else. The divide between the two was high­light­ed in the head­lines of duel­ing CNN op-eds from the can­di­dates, pub­lished Sun­day. Biden’s read, The virus lays bare the short­com­ings of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion,” while Sanders’ declared, Coro­n­avirus high­lights the flaws in our health­care and eco­nom­ic systems.”

The out­break has put those flaws on full dis­play. On March 12, the Fed­er­al Reserve pumped $1.5 tril­lion in short-term loans into finan­cial mar­kets to help sta­bi­lize them. Trump’s Trea­sury Sec­re­tary Steven Mnuchin is ask­ing Con­gress to upend the 2010 Dodd-Frank finan­cial reforms — put in place to pro­tect from anoth­er col­lapse — as a way to deal with the eco­nom­ic impacts of coro­n­avirus. And Trump him­self has float­ed bail­ing out the fos­sil fuel, air­line and cruise indus­tries as part of his administration’s response.

Mean­while, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic-con­trolled House’s response pack­age excludes a full 80% of the work­force from the bill’s paid sick leave pro­tec­tions. At a time when the rich­est 10% of America’s fam­i­lies claim 70% of all wealth in the coun­try, Whole Foods — owned by Jess Bezos, the rich­est man in the world — has encour­aged employ­ees to donate” their own paid leave to fel­low work­ers who get sick. 

These respons­es from the polit­i­cal and cor­po­rate estab­lish­ment don’t come close to deal­ing with the cri­sis that’s spread­ing like wild­fire across the coun­try. Doing so will require trans­form­ing nation­al pri­or­i­ties, from pro­tect­ing cor­po­rate inter­ests to pro­tect­ing human life. 

Through­out the debate, Biden brushed away Sanders’ calls for a trans­for­ma­tive approach, say­ing Peo­ple are look­ing for results, not a revolution.”

The cri­sis shows not just the cal­lous­ness of the cur­rent sys­tem but the poten­tial for rad­i­cal change. Pushed by neces­si­ty, gov­ern­ments have been respond­ing with mea­sures social­ists have long called for: Cities such as Mia­mi and New York are halt­ing evic­tions. Oth­ers like Detroit are revers­ing their water shut­off poli­cies. Even Trump has announced that those with stu­dent loans admin­is­tered by the gov­ern­ment will see their inter­est fees waived dur­ing the crisis.

These pol­i­cy changes reveal that gov­ern­ment has always had the pow­er, and the abil­i­ty, to pro­tect the most vul­ner­a­ble res­i­dents — it’s just pre­vi­ous­ly cho­sen not to pur­sue them. But with the virus becom­ing a clear and present dan­ger, Amer­i­cans are real­iz­ing more and more that the func­tion of our gov­ern­ment must be to pro­vide safe­ty and care for its peo­ple. Accord­ing to a new Morn­ing Con­sult poll, 41% of adults now say that the out­break has made them more like­ly to sup­port uni­ver­sal health­care pro­pos­als, where all Amer­i­cans would get their health insur­ance from the government.”

At the debate, Sanders stat­ed, This is not the time for prof­i­teer­ing.” If the coro­n­avirus out­break can show us any­thing, it’s that when it comes to basic human needs, prof­i­teer­ing nev­er has a place in soci­ety. Only sol­i­dar­i­ty does.

Views expressed are those of the writer. As a 501©3 non­prof­it, In These Times does not sup­port or oppose any can­di­date for pub­lic office.

Miles Kampf-Lassin, a grad­u­ate of New York Uni­ver­si­ty’s Gal­latin School in Delib­er­a­tive Democ­ra­cy and Glob­al­iza­tion, is a Web Edi­tor at In These Times. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @MilesKLassin

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