The coronavirus pandemic has made universal healthcare a matter of urgency. We face an international calamity in which an injury to one is an injury to all. The state of health of our neighbors—and even strangers passing in schools, stores, offices, and streets—is suddenly of vital, life-and-death interest to each of us.
The only option in this case is the public one. A public health emergency, like war, demands mobilization of resources on a massive scale: the effective socialization of the means of diagnosis and treatment, as well as paid sick leave for all workers (alongside other economic measures to support those losing wages), in order to limit disease spread until a vaccine is found and effectively deployed. In the short term, that means a massive increase in clinics and testing centers, with accompanying hospital beds for those who need extended care. All such facilities must be free and available upon demand.
Our current healthcare system, with its chaotic and motley mix of private and public insurance systems—along with tens of millions of uninsured—is wholly inadequate to the current crisis, which requires, above all, coordination and universalism. What we need is socialized medicine. The poor and uninsured—including millions of undocumented workers—deserve care. And if they are not invited into the system of health protection, then no one is truly protected.
The needs of the current emergency, however, stretch beyond the provision of and access to care. Just as the outbreak of the Second World War exposed the inadequacy of the nation’s air and naval defenses, so too does the bungled response to the coronavirus identify significant fissures in U.S. production and manufacturing capacity. The fact that the president’s taskforce is begging for space in Walmart parking lots for testing sites is a pathetic instance of inverted rightful authority.
In 1941 and 1942, by contrast, the government commandeered the auto industry to convert its assembly lines to the production of airplanes and artillery. The state purchased the Ford plant in Willow Run, Michigan, then leased it back to the company to oversee its conversion to a bomber factory. Today, similar measures must be applied to key aspects of the health supply chain. Why not public control of a chemical plant to turn out hand sanitizer, of a textile firm to make surgical masks, and of machine shops to mass-produce respirators?
The coronavirus arrived too late to help either Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, the only two candidates for U.S. president who had prioritized universal access to healthcare. Sanders, the dogged champion of socialized medicine, has supported the right program for decades. But perhaps we need to reconsider his terminology. Likely in an effort to overcome opposition government-run programs, he frames his call within a language of individual rights—everyone has a right to healthcare.
Today, we need not just “rights” but a strong public apparatus that is up to the task of governing. Our public health, like our response to climate change, is a social, collective imperative. The impact falls most heavily on low-wage workers and the most vulnerable among us—their welfare and recovery must be priorities—but the consequences reach into every sector of society. And only a powerful, administrative state that dispenses expert authority for the good of all can do the job.
A century ago, Progressive reformer and Baptist theologian Walter Rauschenbusch called for a form of “socialized love.” “What we most need today,” he explained, “is not the love that will break its back drawing water for a growing factory town from a well that was meant to supply a village, but a love so large and intelligent that it will persuade an ignorant people to build a system of waterworks up in the hills.” Today, we need to imagine new structures of care to cope with the current plague—and the next one. When it comes to healthcare and the broader mobilization against coronavirus, nothing less than socialized love will do.
Leon Fink, author of The Long Gilded Age: American Capitalism and the Lessons of a New World Order (2015), edits the journal Labor: Studies in Working-Class History at Georgetown University’s Kalmanowitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor.