In the richest, most successful country in the world, hospitals scramble to provide basic protective gear to healthcare workers and essential equipment like ventilators as COVID-19 patients overload emergency rooms nationwide. The lucky people who recover from this virus’ wrath face massive hospital bills and no way to pay for them in a depressed economy. Massive waves of workers, including many Wellesley College students, are being laid off or forced to take unpaid time off, with no safety net to keep them afloat to pay for basic expenses such as housing, food and college tuition.
What if I told you that these problems of economic insecurity and inequity plagued the United States long before the novel coronavirus pandemic? According to the Federal Reserve, 44 percent of surveyed Americans were unable to cover $400 in emergency costs in 2016. The racial wealth gap in the United States is similarly atrocious: according to the United States Census Bureau, in 2018, median income by race ranged from $87,194 for Asian-American households to $39,719 for Native American households.
I have already been incredibly skeptical of the American exceptionalism narrative. America could never be superior when its so-called economic success was bred out of the exploitation of people of color. There is nothing exceptional about a government that ignores its citizens’ pleas for basic human rights, such as shelter, food and healthcare — demands that are disproportionately unmet for marginalized groups.
Despite my awareness of all these facts, I wasn’t as compelled to advocate for systemic change before the COVID-19 pandemic as I am now. The fact that I had the privilege of being covered by my parents’ private healthcare plan led me to doubt the necessity of Medicare for All. I viewed the plan as a lofty ideal with little hope of passing Congress, and, like many moderate Democrats, wondered how we were going to pay for the program with a price tag of trillions of dollars.
But with the dawning of the public health crisis posed by the novel coronavirus, I found myself rapidly mobilizing in support of systemic healthcare reform. I was further compelled by Sen. Bernie Sanders’ social media posts, such as a Facebook post from March 30 that stated, “The cruelty and dysfunctionality of our health care status quo has never been more clear than now. Under Medicare for All, you will never have to worry about losing your health insurance if you lose your job.” Critics have argued that Sanders and other progressives are merely capitalizing off this pandemic to further their political agenda, but at the core of these policies is a pursuit of humanity for all Americans. Empathy can transcend party lines — if we let it.
As the United States surpasses China and Italy in its number of COVID-19 cases, take this hectic moment in our history to imagine a better future for all. Implementing universal healthcare is more than a fantasy — according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, numerous prosperous nations, such as Finland, Norway and Spain already provide this right to their citizens. In an America with Medicare for All, people would be less reluctant to go to the doctor when ill, slowing the spread of any infectious disease, pandemic or not.
Unfortunately, as college students, a lot of these governmental policies are not under our control. But at the institutional level, we can practice “radical” empathy in many ways. When in-person instruction resumes, we can accommodate people’s requests to attend class or work remotely whenever they need it because coronavirus has shown us it is possible. We can pressure the College to divest from fossil fuels because environmental degradation facilitates the rapid spread of infectious diseases like COVID-19. We can hold the College accountable in accommodating students unable to pay for next year’s tuition due to the global recession this virus has sparked, with a focus on first-generation, low-income and international students.
When this pandemic eventually comes to an end, we would be squandering a significant opportunity to care for others if we didn’t extend many progressive policies enacted during the coronavirus outbreak into peacetime. Pandemic or not, people have the right to be humanized and empowered, not degraded, by their government. If that’s a radical statement, then I’m as radical as they come.