Workers matter and government works: eight lessons from the Covid pandemic

Workers matter and government works: eight lessons from the Covid pandemic

Maybe it’s wishful thinking to declare the pandemic over in the US, and presumptuous to conclude what lessons we’ve learned. So consider this a first draft.

We couldn’t have survived without millions of warehouse, delivery, grocery and hospital workers literally risking their lives. Yet most of these workers are paid squat. Amazon touts its $15 minimum wage but it totals only about $30,000 a year. Most essential workers don’t have health insurance or paid leave. Many of their employers (including Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, to take but two examples) didn’t give them the personal protective equipment they needed.

You know how you got your vaccine without paying a dime? That’s how all healthcare could be. Yet too many Americans who contracted Covid-19 got walloped with humongous hospital bills. By mid-2020, about 3.3 million people had lost employer-sponsored coverage and the number of uninsured had increased by 1.9 million. Research by the Urban Institute found that people with chronic disease, Black Americans and low-income children were most likely to have delayed or foregone care during the pandemic.

Last June, about one in four Americans believed the pandemic was “definitely” or “probably” created intentionally, according to the Pew Research Center. Other conspiracy theories have caused some people to avoid wearing masks or getting vaccinated, resulting in unnecessary illness or death.

Lesson: An informed public is essential. Some of the responsibility falls on all of us. Some of it on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms that allowed misinformation to flourish.

The stock market rose throughout the pandemic, lifting the wealth of the richest 1% who own half of all stock owned by Americans. Meanwhile, from March 2020 to February 2021 80 million in the US lost their jobs. Between June and November 2020, nearly 8 million fell into poverty. Black and Latino adults were more than twice as likely as white adults to report not having enough to eat: 16% each for Black and Latino adults, compared to 6% of white adults.

Lesson: Stop using the stock market as a measure of economic wellbeing. Look instead at the percentage of Americans who are working, and their median pay.

Most Americans live paycheck to paycheck. So once the pandemic hit, many didn’t have any savings to fall back on. Conservative lawmakers complain that the extra $300 a week unemployment benefit Congress enacted in March discourages people from working. What’s really discouraging them is lack of childcare and lousy wages.

Lesson: Raise the minimum wage, strengthen labor unions and push companies to share profits with their workers.

The percentage of workers punching in from home hit a high of 70% in April 2020. A majority still work remotely. Some 40% want to continue working from home.

Two lessons: Companies will have to adjust. And much commercial real estate will remain vacant. Why not convert it into affordable housing?

The combined wealth of America’s 657 billionaires grew by $1.3tn – or 44.6% – during the pandemic. Jeff Bezos, with $183.9bn, became the richest man in the world. Larry Page, a co-founder of Google, added $11.8bn to his $94.3bn fortune. Sergey Brin, Google’s other co-founder, added $11.4bn. Yet billionaires’ taxes are lower than ever. Wealthy Americans today pay one-sixth the rate of taxes their counterparts paid in 1953.

Lesson: To afford everything the nation needs, raise taxes at the top.

Ronald Reagan’s famous quip – “Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem” – can now officially be retired. Trump’s “Operation Warp Speed” succeeded in readying vaccines faster than most experts thought possible. Biden got them into more arms more quickly than any vaccination program in history.

Furthermore, the $900bn in aid Congress passed in late December prevented millions from losing unemployment benefits and helped sustain the recovery when it was faltering. The $1.9tn Democrats pushed through in March will help the US achieve something it failed to achieve after the 2008-09 recession: a robust recovery.

Lesson: The federal government did not just help beat the pandemic. It also did more to keep the nation afloat than in any previous recession. It must be prepared to do so again.

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