The new coronavirus presents an opportunity for Americans to reconsider what it means to be part of a sick society. The virus’ spread is hastened by systemic poverty, as potentially expensive treatments, no national sick leave guarantee, and school closures disproportionately affect lower-income communities.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who famously called systemic poverty one of the three evils of our society, preached in 1968 at Mason Temple church in Memphis, Tennessee: “The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around.”
How right he was.
The virus’ indiscriminate spread reveals much about the quality of our global systems of representation. Which countries have the best pandemic response plans and sick leave policies—and which don’t? What are the limits of anti-government narratives about how political leaders should intervene to address widespread social and economic threats? What are the powers of national and state governments to mitigate the harms caused by the viral outbreaks, which are made worse by systemic poverty?
Compare the Trump administration’s bumbling response to this pandemic, littered with backtracking and inaccuracies about travel bans, waived treatment costs, and the availability of testing kits, to the way that South Korea has handled the virus, with estimates that tens of thousands of South Koreans are tested daily for free at emergency drive-through health centers.
Compare the widely reported absence of a national sick leave policy in the United States, to the pre-existing statutory sick pay in the United Kingdom. The U.K.’s policy, enacted in 1992, kicks in if a worker has been off work for four days and lasts for up to 28 weeks. As I write, both members of Congress and the U.K.’s Parliament are proposing new sick pay legislation in response to the outbreak, but while the United States’ policy is starting from scratch and facing legislative pushback, the U.K. is building upon a pre-existing measure, having proactively considered the needs of sick workers long before a global emergency arose.
Just a few weeks ago, there was much dismissive and fearful rhetoric over massive government intervention under a potential Bernie Sanders presidency. Now powerful institutions are introducing sweeping measures ranging from the Fed issuing $1.5 trillion in short-term loans for financial firms, to the executive branch announcing $50 billion in emergency funding for states fighting the virus, waived coronavirus testing costs, and waived student loan interest payments.
Amidst the chaos, the virus serves as a showcase of the substantial resources for relief and aid that U.S. government officials have available, but too often does a poor job of providing. It also highlights the wrongheadedness of conservative leaders who’ve spent years actively fighting to weaken key government initiatives, such as the administration’s recent decisions to shut down the CDC Pandemic Response Team and roll back SNAP benefits and to propose massive funding cuts to the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institute of Health, and the World Health Organization. This is akin to somebody throwing out unexpired medicine because they’re not sick.
Though it will likely depress voter turnout and delay elections, the virus has irrevocably thrust policies like paid sick leave for all workers, less stringent social service benefits, and more compassionate student loan policies beyond the realm of mere popularity. These policies are a national imperative. Although partisan disputes will continue, dysfunction must give way to long-overdue policy change.
As systemic poverty hastens the spread of COVID-19, it is no longer an abstract social ill, but a literal one. But as Dr. King continued in his speech before the Memphis congregation, “But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”
Richard Omoniyi-Shoyoola is a graduate of the University of Chicago with a B.A. in political science. He has a passion for political advocacy and public service and lives on the South Side of Chicago. He can be reached at email@example.com.