Coronavirus infection rates are spiking again in large swaths of the country, thanks to conservative lawmakers’ successful push to ignore public health guidance and restart the economy earlier this summer. Their lethal calculus went something like this: the country’s economic losses from coronavirus prevention would be worse than the death toll caused by its unmitigated spread. Nevermind the incomprehensible toll of the unprecedented risks that the coronavirus pandemic continues to present to the public. In terms of coronavirus rates, we are back where we started, albeit in new regions. In the South and the West, overwhelmed ICU staff try to save those they can, essential workers risk their lives to keep life going, and everyone else stays home.
It’s no secret how we got here. Trump and several right-wing governors fed off the energy of business lobbyists and a small group of reopen protestors, advocating to reopen states even though polls showed that the majority of Americans were in support of the lockdowns. And, of course, with the second wave of COVID-19 came a second wave of ‘reopen’ protests that, unwittingly, demonstrated the value these protestors place on certain American lives with themes like “Bar Lives Matter.”
Despite outrage over the government’s (and some Americans’) callous disregard for public health, the recommendation that we let thousands or millions die in the name of financial gain is, unfortunately, not all that radical. In fact, it’s the logical conclusion of a decades-long shift in business, law, and politics to prioritize, to the point of fetish, economic growth, privatization, and policies benefiting corporations and the wealthy. Champions of law and economics brought strict, bottom-line pricing decisions to all corners of federal purchasing, even when the law and public policy were not entirely on their side. Valuations of human life became the norm throughout the legal universe – from regulatory actions to the courtroom – meaning that some lives are inherently undervalued in comparison to those of wealthy individuals or corporate interests. The free market became the metric and operating system in areas previously unimaginable, like public schools and prisoner rehabilitation. And, components of public life that are inherently public, like public health, were made private or eliminated because of their inherent unsuitability to the private market.
Not only does this math turn every American into a potential martyr of economic growth, the valuations themselves ignore factors that are impossible to quantify. Most importantly, despite the implication that vulnerable Americans have outlived their economic usefulness, they too contribute to our economy by spending money, continuing to work, acting as caregivers, and engaging with their communities. Even with mitigation, the coronavirus has already killed a broad segment of healthcare workers. Tellingly, lockdown opponents are overwhelmingly white and non-urban, while COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people in urban settings, demonstrating which lives our leaders value. Finally, there will be the ongoing, overall cost of long-term care for an entire population recovering from a shared psychological trauma of mass suffering and death on a scale that is many times larger than 9/11.
If our leaders valued human life in the same way they value corporate growth, we would have been able to control losses from the pandemic and survive lockdown. A comprehensive social safety net would have made reopening seem less vital. Essential workers with access to paid sick leave would not have to go to work sick and spread COVID-19. If hospitals were not forced to operate on slim margins, they could have stockpiled personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare professionals. The first teenager in the United States to die from COVID-19 would not have been turned away from urgent care simply because he lacked health insurance. Our federal government would have been able to procure ventilators before hospitals ran out, rather than balking at the price tag in the middle of an emergency. If our leaders valued a resilient supply chain, they would not incentivize overseas manufacture of crucial, high-value goods like ventilators and PPE. And, our leadership would have ensured that we had the workforce to build, manufacture, and service our healthcare infrastructure because workers had access to good jobs, with good pay, benefits, and paid leave. (In fact, it was laid-off GE manufacturing workers who ended the ventilator stalemate by demanding that they be put to work building them.)
Our recovery bills funneled trillions of recovery dollars to corporations and the wealthy, rather than provide respite to the Americans experiencing the worst economic fallout of the pandemic. Despite some short-term protections in the relief bills, workers still face a limited safety net, much of which will expire at the end of this year. A significant percentage of small business relief loans went to big businesses in disguise, leading many small businesses to shutter in the first few months of the pandemic. To heal as a nation and develop a resilient, equitable economy, our government must plan for a just recovery. That recovery must include a stimulus accessible to all, clawbacks for corporate recipients, and procurement reform that prioritizes good jobs for all Americans. We simply won’t recover unless every recovery dollar maximizes benefits to workers and communities. That kind of stimulus would put our country on track to sustainable economic growth that values us all.
Felice Segura is the National Legal Director at Jobs to Move America. Felice has over ten years of experience in labor organizing, worker rights, and environmental law.