Diana Hernández has one foot in the Ivy League, where she’s an assistant professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, and another in the grittier streets of the South Bronx, the mostly working-class area where she lives. Walking down a Bronx boulevard the other day, she witnessed scenes much different from the TV-news version of the coronavirus crisis, where suburbanites stuff payloads of squeezably soft toilet paper and price-gouged Purell in the back of luxury SUVs.
Instead, Hernández wrote that she witnessed Bronx shoppers at her local Dollar Tree stocking up on bleach, a tiny four-pack of toilet paper or a three-pack of Cup Noodles — stockpiles for families that lack cash for day-to-day emergencies, let alone the uncertainties of a global pandemic. She called it emblematic of how hard the coronavirus crisis is for people living on the margins — who can’t simply work from home when their job is cleaning hospital floors or frying fast-food burgers, who can only get around on crowded buses or subways, who can’t take paid sick days or don’t have child care when their kids’ schools shut down.
“The black and brown folks who work for these corporations have to show up on their line or at their cleaning facility, because they’re taking care of the things that can’t be taken care of remotely,” Hernández told me by phone. I’d called her after reading her op-ed on how a public health crisis has laid bare what so many have tried to ignore for so long — the many ways that the cruel inequalities of modern U.S. capitalism weigh on working people.
The public-health emergency even has some lawmakers who’ve worked for decades to cut the social safety net now supporting a universal paid sick leave — at least for this one virus, if not for the 900 or whatever other things that could make workers ill — and or even funding what might be called Medicaid-for-all ... people with coronavirus symptoms, so that the uninsured or under-insured will get free testing, at least.
In 2020, a liberal is a conservative who’s been exposed to the coronavirus. It was almost surreal to watch a suddenly kinder, gentler-sounding Mike Pence declare that “[w]hen we tell people, ‘If you’re sick, stay home,’ the president has tasked the team with developing economic policies that will make it very, very clear that we’re going to stand by those hard-working Americans.” Aren’t these the same people fighting in court to deny health insurance to hard-working Americans with other types of pre-existing medical conditions? (Spoiler alert: Yes, they are.)
It’s fascinating to watch how a pandemic-inspired fear of the unknown — flavored by the fact that COVID-19 initially tended to spread through the things that more affluent Americans do, like travel overseas, book cruise-ship vacations or attend business conferences — has finally caused at least a slight bump in awareness of the kind of problems that everyday folks, working two or three jobs in a gig economy, have been screaming about for years.
Many experts noted that America’s mad scramble to suddenly guarantee paid sick days or coverage for necessary medical procedures must look strange to Europeans, or other developed societies with a generous safety social net, where leaders don’t think the only solution to every problem is to throw more tax breaks at corporations and pray that a few dollars trickle down. The New York Times recently noted that Germany, France, Denmark and the Netherlands are among the nations where workers have a right to paid sick leave — and that sense of security, along with the knowledge that folks won’t get surprise medical bills, have dampened both the economic fallout and some of the fear from the pandemic.
On this side of the Atlantic, in the land of unfettered free-market capitalism and “rugged individualism,” things are a little different. With no federal law in place, about a dozen, mostly blue states, D.C., and about 30 municipalities (including Philadelphia, for most employers, in 2015) have mandated paid sick leave, often over the objection of business lobbyists offering dire predictions of profit shrinkage.
In arguably the most well-timed paper in the history of American academia, research co-led by a Temple University professor — and dropped by the National Bureau of Economic Research on Monday, in the heat of the coronavirus debate — found that the economic costs of paid sick leave are surprisingly low while other gains are high.
Temple economist Johanna Catherine Maclean and her two colleagues, using a treasure trove of wage and benefit data reported to the U.S. Labor Department from 2009 to 2017, when a number of state and local mandatory paid-leave laws were enacted, found workers in those jurisdictions took just two more sick days a year. There was no significant effect on business, and the researchers calculated the per worker cost at 20 cents per hours. But the workers were healthier and better off, and probably had better morale. And they weren’t making their co-workers sick when they could afford to stay home — even before the coronavirus reached America.
Maclean told me on Wednesday that “sometimes it takes a crisis” for leaders to see the benefits of something like paid sick leave, even though polls before the coronavirus showed roughly 75 percent of Americans support such laws. “We see this pattern,” she said, “where it takes a troubling development to rise the value of a policy change to policy makers.”
Well, yes and no. As is so often the case in today’s American oligarchy, corporations are responding faster and better to the public outcry than government. In the last week we’ve seen big businesses like Amazon to Darden Restaurants to gig economy icon Uber agree to some form of coronavirus sick leave — the same kind of thing they’ve been fighting against for workers came down with, say, Influenza Classic, which may kill 30,000 Americans this year.
But up on Capitol Hill, GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander — even while making the concession, seemingly remarkable for a top Republican, that a bill mandating 14 days of paid sick leave in a national health emergency is “a good idea”— then blocked that good idea (which also allowed workers to accrue seven days of conventional paid sick days a year) because he believes that government and its bottomless pasta bowl of debt should pay the tab, not the industrialists who coincidentally finance the Republican Party.
The legislative state-of-play on Thursday — with the nation reeling from a bear market, the suspension of NBA basketball and news that Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson are the first celebrity cases — is the same-old gridlock, for now. The new plan from House Democrats is people-oriented — sick leave, widespread free testing, food aid and unemployment insurance — while Trump is talking typical GOP corporate welfare and tax cuts. But the pressure of a worsening crisis could be the thing — maybe the only thing, in 2020′s divided America — that leads to common ground.
There’s a notion that’s gained credence over the last decade or two — “the shock doctrine,” as named by the writer Naomi Klein, also known as “disaster capitalism” — that our modern kleptocracy uses tragedies, from natural (like hurricanes) to man-made (like, um, stock market crashes) to impose policies such as privatization of government services that the public would never go for in normal times. But can it work in reverse? Can the shock of a pandemic — and the realization that our cruel capitalist constructs have made it harder to deal with — cause a reversal of fortune?
Will the coronavirus crisis spark a kind of “disaster socialism,” to finally embrace the social safety net that’s the norm in so many other countries?
The political irony is that 2020 started out with two high-profile presidential candidates calling for the kind of radical change that would have made a public-health crisis like the current moment easier for everyday Americans: Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Now Warren is gone and Sanders is on their ropes, as voters in the earlier stage of the coronavirus crisis focus less on policy and more on the kind of familiar leadership offered by Joe Biden.
But despite their flaws, the thing about Biden and, arguably, President Trump is that both men are not rigid ideologues. They have been known to bend to the moment. Trump, after all, used to be a pro-choice Democrat while Biden was a Catholic moderate of the 1970s who evolved into championing gay marriage. Today, rising to meet this crisis means embracing the security that working Americans need to pay their medical bills or call out sick or put their kid in child care. If there was ever a time for a Nixon-in-China transformation, it’s now.