America’s policy gaps set us up to fail in the wake of coronavirus

Transmission electron microscope image showing coronavirus. (Photo courtesy of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

As we all prepare for the possibility of a coronavirus outbreak in Maryland, it’s important that we hold our government responsible for the policies and institutions that are facilitating the virus’s quick spread. We should all be taking precautions, such as frequently washing our hands or avoiding touching our faces and mouths, but let’s take a look at the things that are aiding the spread of coronavirus that are out of our control. 

    1. There’s a lack of paid sick leave across the U.S. As many people have already pointed out, paid sick leave allows sick employees to stay home and not further spread the virus at work. Hourly employees are unlikely to have paid sick leave, and those hourly positions are often in industries such as food service. Perhaps this epidemic will finally give Congress the push it needs to pass the Family Act, which would “guarantee up to 12 weeks of leave, at 66% of pay, for those with serious illnesses.”
    2. The federal minimum wage is $7.25. That’s to say, if you worked for 60 minutes, the national minimum wage could not buy you a burrito at Chipotle. Think about that. In some states, the minimum wage is even lower (like Wyoming, with a measly $5.15 per hour) or they don’t have a minimum at all. Workers are entitled to the higher of the two (state or federal) minimums, but that doesn’t mean they are always actually paid what they’re owed. With such low wages, some people inevitably live paycheck to paycheck, meaning they have little to no savings available for illness or emergency — which leads back to coming to work when you’re sick because you don’t have savings or paid time off! Look at that, it’s a tidy little cycle.
    3. Our health care system is terrible. It’s inaccessible, inefficient and puts profits over patients. The Affordable Care Act of 2010, which implemented an individual mandate requiring citizens to have a basic level of health care coverage, is no longer assessing federal penalties for not having coverage. In 2018, 27.5 million people in the U.S. did not have health insurance at any point in the year. This means that low-income communities, undocumented immigrants, and other populations — who are less likely to have health insurance because of poor government policy and our health insurance industry — are also less likely to get treatment if they catch the virus. Oh, and these are the same communities who are affected most by our abysmal minimum wage and lack of paid sick leave.
    4. Finally, let’s talk about poor urban centers, which are also populated by these communities. We’ll use Baltimore as an example — affordable housing in Baltimore is in serious demand. In November of 2019, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City had a waitlist of 14,000 people who hoped to secure a spot in the city’s publicly financed housing. When people can’t find housing that fits their budgets, they can resort to living in poor conditions, such as in their cars or on the streets. And living without running water or heating would only worsen the symptoms of any virus. How can you wash your hands frequently to prevent catching coronavirus if you live in your car? If you do contract the virus, how can you ensure that the symptoms don’t get worse if you don’t have heating or somewhere comfortable to quarantine and recover? 

 

What I’m getting at is this: We have all these systems and policies that place the worst conditions on specific communities of people. These compounding variables give at-risk populations, through no fault of their own, a higher chance of contracting and spreading the virus unintentionally. It’s fine to say wash your hands, stay home and self-quarantine when you’re sick, or make sure surfaces are clean, but it’s a privilege to be able to do so. These are not the real issues. It’s coronavirus today, but this cycle of epidemics will not stop until we understand how these structures are all connected and make the effort to fix them. 

Liyanga de Silva is a senior English and women’s studies major. She can be reached at liyanga.a.ds@gmail.com.

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