The world is responding to the rapidly spreading Coronavirus. Employers, including my own, are warning employees about coronavirus. Conferences and meetings are being canceled, and many tech companies are starting to tell their employees to work from home for the indefinite future to try to quarantine and halt the spread of Coronavirus. After two suspected cases in Pennsylvania, Governor Wolf has declared a state emergency.
All this talk made me reflect on what we must do urgently to contain this virus now, and what needs to be done for better future responses to epidemic outbreaks.
Firstly, while urgent action is needed, we must not panic. The best way to protect yourself is to wash your hands regularly, and use hand sanitizer when away from a sink. If you or someone you know may be showing the symptoms of the virus, the CDC recommends you call your doctor to ask for advice or let them know you’d like to come to the office for evaluation and treatment so they can take appropriate precautions.
However, this advice immediately runs into problems because of the high cost of seeing a doctor. The for-profit insurance industry comes in between us and our doctors, and there are reports of its costing $3000 or more just to get tested for Coronavirus. People will simply not get the care they need because of concerns of high costs, and people may die as a result. I believe this is a wake-up call, a reminder that we must do more to address the high costs of healthcare in this country. Since infectious diseases can spread, we are all healthier and safer if we make sure every individual can get the care they need immediately. I firmly advocate a single payer healthcare system that takes our health out of the hands of for-profit insurance companies and our employers and puts its back where it belongs – between patients and their doctors, that’s it. No copays, no deductibles, no out of pocket cost at point of service, no bill when you get home, just high quality care from your favorite doctor or hospital. State officials need to consider a plan to get free testing and treatment to people as necessary NOW, but longer-term we need a single payer healthcare system already prepared to tackle any epidemic. The Healthcare for All PA plan is a good step toward this type of system.
Another issue is that the CDC and doctors are recommending staying home from work and staying out of public due to the contagious nature of the virus. However, many people cannot afford to do this – US federal law doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave to workers, and about 1 in 4 workers does not have any paid sick leave, and many more do not have an adequate amount of sick days. If people stay home from work, they likely lose a paycheck if not their job. And with so many families struggling as it is, missing a paycheck could have severe consequences on families. No one should have to choose between their health (and public safety!) and putting food on the table for their family. I fully support Pennsylvania requiring a sufficient amount of paid sick leave for all workers in the state, so that people may take the time off they need to fully recover, and to not infect others while they are sick.
Longer term, when new viruses like this spread, we need trained infectious diseases scientists and doctors to respond, research, and develop medication and vaccines. Medical school is expensive, which keeps many out. The students that do make it have such high student debt, it’s a no wonder doctor offices have to charge such high rates – so much simply goes to paying their student debt! We could train more doctors and lower doctor visit costs by having tuition-free public universities, including through graduate schools like medical school. If students apply, meet the requirements, and are accepted, they should get tuition-free schooling as an investment in the future our communities and state. There was a time Pennsylvania paid a large share of university budget expenses, but budget cuts under Republicans and Democrats for decades has resulted in drastically increased tuition. I support programs like the Pennsylvania Promise as a start toward this goal.
Related, a large amount of pharmaceutical research is also conducted by public universities and publicly funded, in part because for-profit companies are afraid to research cutting-edge drugs if they can’t guarantee a profit. In fact, a recent article says that scientists wanted to develop a vaccine for coronavirus back in 2016, but couldn’t find investors or funding. We should increase public funding for drug research to universities, make sure the graduate students that do the important lab work are fairly compensated (good wages and ability to unionize!), and require drug manufacturers to provide the drugs at much lower cost in exchange.
One last comment. Governor Wolf declared a state emergency over the coronavirus, but it is not the only health crisis facing our state. Allegheny County’s air quality is still some of the worst in the nation, and our state suffers from some of the highest rates of asthma and lung cancer in the country. More fracking and petrochemicals is only going to make that worse – Wolf should declare an air-quality emergency for the health of our children, and reverse course on fossil fuels. He can start by vetoing House Bill 1100 and its billions of dollars of subsidies to fossil fuels for decades.