CORONA VIRUS PANDEMIC HIGHLIGHTS WEAKNESS OF PUBLIC INFRASTRUCTURE

The corona virus pandemic has highlighted critical issues in the U.S. economy and society that have led to unnecessary hardship, suffering, and deaths. These include the neglect of public infrastructure that led to the inability of governments to respond effectively to a pandemic.

Although the Trump administration’s disorganized and incompetent response to the pandemic (aided and abetted by some in Congress) bears significant responsibility for the high death rate in the U.S. (as documented in this previous post), the long-term neglect of public agencies and capacities shares some of the blame.  [1]

For forty years the U.S. has been neglecting, weakening, and, in some cases, literally dismantling public infrastructure, including government agencies, programs, and capabilities. Much of this has been done because of tax cuts and reductions in government revenue. (By the way, these have disproportionately benefited wealthy individuals and corporations.) When a politician tells you he can cut taxes without harming the services government provides, remind him that there’s no such thing as a free lunch; this pandemic has painfully shown this to be true.

At both the federal and state levels, bipartisan neglect of investments in government infrastructure, typically with Republicans leading the way but with many Democrats jumping on board, is now painfully obvious. Often the people who use the government’s safety net infrastructure are our poor and vulnerable residents who have the least political influence. Now, middle-class Americans are discovering the shortcomings and challenges of these programs, which include unemployment insurance. One particular area of weakness is information technology, where investments in updating and enhancing computer systems has been sorely lacking. It’s important to note that other wealthy countries are not experiencing the same breakdowns of government systems. [2]

A successful response to a disease threat requires not only treatment capacity (personnel and equipment), but the ability to identify individuals who have contracted it, track them and their contacts, and quarantine those individuals to contain, slow, and eventually stop the spread of the disease.

The U.S., theoretically, learned all of this from the 2014 Ebola outbreak. However, the Trump administration ignored the response plan prepared by the Obama administration. It disbanded or weakened the agencies needed to respond. So, in the face of the current pandemic, these lessons learned were ignored. (See more here.) The lack of investment in pandemic preparedness has left the U.S. with an insufficient supply of ventilators, protective masks, and other medical supplies. It also lacks a plan to obtain these supplies, a trigger to initiate a pandemic response, and the capacity to implement testing, tracking, and containment of a deadly disease.

The threat of a deadly virus shouldn’t have come as any surprise. Bill Gates (the Microsoft billionaire) did a TED Talk in 2015 entitled, “The next outbreak? We’re not ready,” in which he states that the biggest threat of mass deaths is not war or terrorism – it’s a virus. Gates states that the U.S. needs to treat pandemic preparedness the same way we treat military readiness: we need to have people, equipment, and plans in place and ready to go at a moment’s notice.

Other warnings were ignored as well. In the fall of 2019, a government exercise revealed that the U.S. was woefully unprepared for a pandemic. In January 2020, U.S. intelligence agencies’ warnings that a pandemic was on its way went unheeded. Also in January, a medical mask manufacturer in Texas contacted senior federal government officials and offered to increase production of masks but was ignored. [3] The country – and the world – later scrambled to address serious shortages of these masks.

In addition to providing a direct response to the disease, public infrastructure is critical to supporting society and the economy in the wake of a pandemic. An essential response to the economic shutdown is to provide unemployment benefits. However, the state unemployment systems that deliver these benefits are a case study example of public sector systems and agencies that have been under-invested in and allowed to decay. State unemployment agencies have been completely overwhelmed and unable to deliver benefits, despite the availability of funding for emergency benefits. Applicants in states across the country report an inability to get a response from their state unemployment agencies. [4] An important factor has been old computer systems that are unable to support the workload and respond to changed eligibility requirements and benefits.

Similarly, the Small Business Administration has been overwhelmed by requests for emergency relief. Its staff and technology have been unable to process applications, let alone get money out the door. The Internal Revenue Service is struggling to get stimulus checks to people due to years of cuts that have resulted in reduced staffing and antiquated computer systems. It has had problems identifying recipients and delivering checks accurately. The people most in need are likely to be the last ones to actually get checks.

The neglect of public investment has left our economy less resilient and our public and private, physical and social infrastructure less able to respond to a crisis, such as this corona virus pandemic. Basic democratic institutions and capabilities, such as holding safe and fair elections and delivering the mail, have been undermined.

In the response to this pandemic, as with the 2008 financial industry implosion, the government has stepped in to bail out corporations (and their wealthy executives and investors) first and foremost, providing them the protections of socialism for their losses in bad times, after having let them take the out-sized profits of capitalism in the good times.

However, despite the public bailout of the private sector, the private sector has let workers go by the millions, leaving them to depend on the public sector for a safety net of unemployment benefits, food and housing subsidies, public health insurance, and other essentials. The pandemic has shown that a capitalistic economy and society built on catering to the rich and their large corporations (a plutocracy), promising (falsely) that some of the riches will trickle down to the masses, is literally willing to sacrifice the lives of its elders and others vulnerable to disease for the sake of the wealth of its plutocrats. [5]

I hope we will learn some lessons from and implement long-term fixes for the critical issues in the U.S. economy and society laid bare by the pandemic. These lessons include the need to invest in public infrastructure (such as pandemic preparedness), address inequality and racism in our economy and society, and provide an effective safety net.

In my next post I’ll explore how the pandemic is exposing the underlying racism in U.S. society and the devastating effects it’s having on Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and immigrants.

[1]      Hanauer, N., 4/14/20, “Our uniquely American virus,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/coronavirus/our-uniquely-american-virus/)

[2]      Cohen, M. A., 4/12/20, “Decades of neglect in basic services now exposed,” The Boston Globe

[3]      Davis, A. C., 5/10/20, “HHS turned down offer to manufacture N95 masks,” The Boston Globe

[4]      Cohen, M. A., 4/12/20, see above

[5]      Hanauer, N., 4/14/20, see above

One comment

  1. Hi John,

    Another good post…thank you…

    Tom

    “Aim High for Aphasia; another step in the call for action!”

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