The Canary has spoken to public health doctor and progressive activist Dr Abdul El-Sayed about the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. He reflected on how the crisis has hit the US, in light of his new book – Healing Politics. A Doctor’s Journey Into the Heart of Our Political Epidemic.
‘The pandemic shines a light on mass insecurity and vulnerability to exploitation’
At the time of writing, 10,490 had died in the US after a coronavirus infection. It also had 356,414 confirmed cases of the virus – the highest count in the world. With the country’s worsening situation in mind, El-Sayed said:
It is not just the virus that is causing this. It is the virus hitting a society that was fundamentally vulnerable to exploitation by the virus.
He stressed that:
our basic government services are failing because we have underfunded and underinvested in them – in the setting, for example, of just basic public health and the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and state, local health departments
He also argued that:
our system is ripe for exploitation by something like this because 10% of our population doesn’t have healthcare. And the profit motive for our hospitals and our insurance companies leaves us weakest when we need them the most because their sources of funding are falling in the form of elective surgeries, for example, in hospitals that can’t do them – being the primary form of profit… margin. And now they are left struggling under the weight of the increased need for care in Covid.
And he added:
people are having to choose between saving livelihoods and saving lives by having to work in the setting where our economy leaves people fundamentally insecure through gig work or hourly wage work and service work. And so in a lot of ways, the pandemic just shines the light on the underlying epidemic of insecurity which leaves people so vulnerable to exploitation.
The US government’s response
Speaking about the current government approach to tackling the crisis, El-Sayed said:
I don’t support bailouts for major corporations in the context of trying to offer relief for everyday Americans. … corporations have had a history of exploiting major disasters to consolidate their positions in a market. And I do think that, if we are not already seeing that we will see that in the future.
I don’t think it is as much about political exploitation as it is about seeing the world through a political prism, especially in the case of folks who believe that corporations are essential in our country – which I do not – in the way that they are… as huge as they are, in the way they’ve consolidated in so many of their markets to create oligopolies that leave smaller competitors out. I don’t think that that’s a feature in our system that we ought to be protecting. I think competition is a good and I think that small businesses really ought to be supported more.
Regarding the possibility of the government eroding civil liberties in the long-term thanks to the current crisis, he stressed:
I do think though that we offer our government a degree of latitude in fighting a pandemic like this because we know the risk that it has to our lives. … we all know the responsibility that we have to put the public’s health forward right now. And I do think that it’s critical that, when the imminent threat is gone, that we continue to hold our government accountable to protecting our basic freedoms and civil liberties.
‘Making sure something like this never happens again’
The US government has faced much criticism for its weak handling of the pandemic. But as El-Sayed pointed out, the pre-existing conditions in US society have also left the country particularly vulnerable to such a crisis:
For the past ten years, at least, there has been a growing movement of people who believe that we have a responsibility to a more just, equitable and sustainable society, that government ought to be in a position of taking on big collective challenges whether it be healthcare or public education or climate change. And I think this pandemic is an example of… our failure in our society to stand up to the challenges that we face and to engage in collective action to do it…
We have a society where we disinvested from basic public goods, whether that be public education or public health. And now we are being faced by a pandemic in a context of deep vulnerability in our society because of inequality and poverty and marginalization. And so we need to fix it. …
my hope is that, coming out of this experience, all of us remember what this was like and why we got here and what we can do to make sure we don’t get here again. … this is a moment where the progressive movement needs to stand up and articulate the kind of opportunities that we have to make sure that something like this never happens again.
Featured image via Tedx Talks
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