A vital wake-up call for all of us

By: - March 17, 2020 5:00 am
Image: Adobe Stock

The COVID-19 outbreak demands immediate and aggressive action – both for now and the future

As miserable, frightening and unprecedented as it is, the current global pandemic with which we are currently attempting to cope ought not to have caught us by such great surprise. Public health officials have been warning about the growing likelihood of such events for decades and, in many instances, dealing with less widespread versions.

More to the point, it ought to be obvious to all elected leaders (and just about anyone paying attention) that in an ever more crowded and interconnected world, situations like the present one could become a destructively regular part of life throughout the remainder of the 21st Century and beyond if we don’t get serious and soon about making some fundamental policy changes and large new investments.

What’s more, merely “pulling together” through volunteer or charitable actions during tough times or advancing the irresponsible notion that the best response to such crises lies somehow in pursuing state-based or local solutions (as some on the political Right have been attempting to argue) isn’t going to get the job done.

As with the climate crisis, basic math and science confirm that we simply can’t plow ahead indefinitely with business as usual, trusting our global common future and that of our children and grandchildren to a hodgepodge of ill-prepared governments and the “genius” of unaccountable corporations and the so-called “invisible hand,” and then merely doing our best to make do and clean up the mess whenever things spiral out of control.

While the market economy remains one of the greatest of human inventions – for producing wealth and spurring innovation and creativity – it remains just that: an imperfect human invention capable of producing terrible and destructive outcomes at the same time. It is not divine.

For the market economy to work well for a planet of going-on-eight billion – all of whom yearn to live safe, healthy and maybe even comfortable lives – it strains credulity to imagine that our current public institutions and infrastructure are sufficient and up to the task.

One needs only to review the recent frighteningly incompetent and, at times, utterly preposterous performance of the president of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation and his overmatched administration, to understand that this is so.

Clearly, we must do much better going forward. To help in coping with the current crisis and to prepare for (and prevent) future disasters of this kind, it’s essential that the United States seize the initiative in building new, strong and lasting systems that are largely insulated from the political fray and designed to work automatically – regardless of who is in power.

Among other things, this means:

1) Constructing a robust and well-funded, global public health infrastructure that features a widely recognized and implemented set of systems that anticipate and respond promptly to the emergence of threats like COVID-19. Here in North Carolina, for example, state investments in public health actually declined by 28% over the last decade at a time in which the state’s population has risen by 12%. The proposed Trump 2020-’21 budget sought to cut funding for the CDC. This must change.

2) Launching a broad-based societal effort to combat the global environmental crisis – a crisis that is already placing enormous strains on the habitability of large swaths of territory, killing our oceans, threatening the health of our air and fresh water, helping to force mass migration and endangering human wellbeing more generally.

3) Investing in a vast expansion of other core components of public infrastructure that can make human communities more resilient and sustainable – e.g. public transportation, roads, the electric grid and sustainable energy networks, flood control, water and sewer, rural internet, environmental protection and reclamation, scientific research, natural resource preservation and emergency services.

4) Building a much stronger and effective public safety net – e.g. Social Security, healthcare access, unemployment insurance, affordable housing, food assistance – that would both boost wellbeing and combat fear and uncertainty.

The bottom line: The COVID-19 pandemic is quickly emerging as one of the greatest challenges to confront modern society in decades. As such, it should serve as the ultimate wake-up call and prompt our state, national and global leaders to get deadly serious (and fast) about investing in the intentional public solutions that will make it possible to preserve and, ultimately, expand human wellbeing and freedom.

Heaven forbid that we would hit the policy snooze button and sleep through it.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.