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People who are sick shouldn’t go to work. Yes, I’m sure your late granddad “never missed a day of work in his life” and that’s why he was able to defeat the Nazis and vote for Ronald Reagan, but we’re smarter than that now. We know that we shouldn’t go into work when we feel ill. We know that we shouldn’t send our kids to school with a fever to toughen them up. We know that sickness is not a moral failure.
Staying home if you feel ill is the courteous thing to do for your coworkers during flu season. During coronavirus season, it’s critical. Right now, “self-quarantine” feels like the most helpful response if you come down with a cough, fever, or, hell, just a throat tickle.
But staying home from work when you are sick, or keeping your kids home from school when they are a snotty, toddling pestilence, is a privilege. Taking time off work to go see a doctor is a luxury. Just having a doctor is a luxury in a country that still does not guarantee universal health care.
The effects of the coronavirus are going to be disproportionately felt by the poor and the working class. That does not necessarily mean the actual, awful death toll will hit the poorest hardest—we still don’t know enough about the virus to determine that—but the disruption that is bound to come will almost certainly play out along the lines of class and wealth. Wage earners need to earn a wage. Often that requires them to be physically present somewhere. I can do my job from self-imposed quarantine until the Purell runs out, if I have to. But that’s not so easy for a cab driver, or a day laborer, or the woman who has to work the Cinnabon counter at JFK.
When we think about the government response to this crisis, we have to think about what the government is doing to address the economic disruption in the lives of people who can least afford to miss a paycheck. Maya Wiley, professor of Urban Policy and Management at the New School, tweeted: “2 important questions I don’t see asked enough on #coronavirus plan: 1. #paidleave for low wage workers who can’t afford to stay home if they have symptoms—34 Million ppl, including 54 percent of Latino & 38% of Black workers; 2. Access to protections like hand sanitizer [for] poor ppl.”
Any effective government response must have answers to these questions. The Centers for Disease Control advises people to stay home if they are sick. But for that good advice to make any practical sense, the rest of the government needs to tell people how they’re supposed to do that and still make rent.
Senator Elizabeth Warren has a plan. She’s proposed an “emergency paid leave” fund, set up by the federal government, to pay people who have to miss work because of the virus. She, and others, have also made the should-be-obvious point that testing should be free. This country is going to learn the virtues of a universal health care system, one way or another.
While Warren’s fund is the right idea, adoption of her proposal seems unlikely in our current political environment. President Donald Trump got his Federal Reserve rate cut. Since the stock market is the only “economy” Trump cares about, I doubt that he’s interested in making sure workers get paid. Moreover, the Republican party’s raison d’être is to destroy the social safety net, not erect new ones merely to promote health and ease human suffering. Even if this government manages not to create new problems with an incompetent, anti-science response, it’s unlikely to offer any help to those whose lives are turned upside down because they’re trying to be good, hygienic citizens.
Without real leadership from the federal government, state and local governments will have a particularly crucial role to play in mitigating the spread of the coronavirus. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently told New Yorkers that school and public buses might smell heavily of bleach as the state ramped up its efforts to keep public transportation clean (prompting me to scream: Wait, New York is just now learning about Clorox?). He also ordered insurers to waive testing fees for the virus.
But the response of many state and local officials has been focused on keeping life running as normally as possible. They have not zeroed in on making it easier on people whose lives are about to be disrupted, or people who rely on services that might soon become harder to get. What is the plan for our homeless shelters? What is the plan for our prisons? Is there a tipping point for when “snowstorm” rules apply, asking only essential personnel to travel on our freshly bleached buses? How are we getting meals to elderly or infirm people who are asked to quarantine themselves for two weeks or more?
Terri Gerstein, director of the State and Local Enforcement Project at Harvard’s Labor and Worklife Program, said that there are immediate options states could take: “States and cities can immediately pass paid sick leave laws, so that workers with symptoms can stay home and not infect others. Nearly a dozen states and many municipalities require employers to provide paid sick leave—which proves that it’s workable—but a majority of jurisdictions don’t have such laws, so that’s an opportunity for immediate action.”
Whether or not the government helps, to meet this public health crisis we’re going to need private-sector support as well. I asked Wiley about this directly. She said, “Public health doesn’t just happen in public. A third of private-sector workers don’t have paid sick days. People who can’t pay the bills if they stay home will sacrifice to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads. People can protect themselves and others if the private sector gives them the ability.” Even if the government doesn’t mandate sick leave, companies should do the right thing and offer it.
I would also add what all parents know: Even those lucky enough to have sick days jealously guard them in case their kids get sick. Lord knows I’ve gone to work fueled by DayQuil and Ricola because I had burned sick days earlier in the week taking care of the human petri dishes who inevitably got me sick. Don’t act like I’m the only one.
So what are we going to do when the schools close?
Schools have been closed in China, Japan, and Hong Kong for weeks to try to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. At least two schools in New York have closed after a suspected case in Westchester. These closings, if they last for any length of time, will put significant stress on most families—and completely disrupt families that rely on income from all available adults. Think of it this way: 30 million children in this country rely on free school lunches. If schools close, we need to have a plan for feeding kids.
How many people have worksites or offices they can simply not show up to for a month if the schools close? How many people have the familial or financial flexibility to have reasonable child-care options should day care be deemed unsafe? And how many people will have to come up with ridiculous or expensive child-care solutions simply because their boss still can’t figure out how to FaceTime into a meeting?
How many people are reading this right now on a train to or away from some cubicle they didn’t really have to be at today?
Many people among the socioeconomic elite can do most of their essential functions from home, if their bosses just let them. But there are many more who can’t. Everybody knows doctors and nurses and first responders have to show up to work during a public health crisis. But society at least pays lip service to giving those people the tools they need to protect themselves and avoid spreading a contagion (whether the PR matches the reality is another question). What about everybody else? What about the worker bleaching the bus, or the person picking up the trash? What about the public defender who has to meet with clients? Are we going to suspend criminal trials if things get really bad? Is McDonald’s going to close? If not, do they have some plan in place to make sure sick workers can take time off, or is the president of the United States’ preferred diet now totally reliant on a soap dispenser and a sneeze guard?
As Wiley says, people can and will protect themselves if our corporate culture and health care systems simply allow them to do so. We have the technology. We live in an economically powerful nation. We live in the future! We can provide tools and testing to all who have to go to work, adjust expectations for those who don’t have to, and make sure that taking sick leave is economically feasible for all who might get infected. We can’t inoculate ourselves from the disruption caused by this or any other potential pandemic, but we can manage those disruptions in a way that treats everybody’s livelihoods with dignity.
But I’m a Democrat. I believe government can work. I believe CEOs have to function within the best interests of society, and not just the stock market. I believe hand sanitizer is perhaps our best defense from an angry and vengeful God.
In a healthy body, coronavirus appears to be survivable. In a healthy society, pandemics are too.
Is our society healthy right now? Will our public and private leaders allow it to be?