The Pandemic Didn’t Have to Be This Bad

The Pandemic Didn’t Have to Be This Bad

The decades of disinvestment in our public health infrastructure has now cost hundreds of thousands of lives.


Defund. That one word has motivated thousands across the country to take to the streets this year to end police violence against Black Americans, and it has also become the punching bag for some Democratic politicians to explain their electoral misfortunes this cycle. But that word, defund, also explains why the United States surpassed 3,000 deaths from Covid-19 in a single day for the first time this week. That staggering number—just one day’s toll from Covid-19—surpasses the number of Americans who died on 9/11. The federal government’s response to those attacks in 2001 was to spend $6 trillion dollars to address a so-called “national security emergency.” But when it comes to the national public health emergency brought on by Covid-19 that is the equivalent of 9/11 daily? We’ve seen nothing near the same urgency or funding from the highest levels of the federal government. Instead, the decades-long defunding and disinvestment from our public health system that has allowed the pandemic to become an uncontrolled disaster continues.

On this week’s System Check, your hosts Melissa Harris-Perry and Dorian Warren explore the Covid-19 pandemic in the first of a two-part series that looks under the hood of our public health system. More than 286,000 people have died from Covid-19, but this week President-elect Biden announced his top-level health care team and an FDA panel voted to approve the emergency use of new vaccines. What the new administration will inherit—and need to reconstruct—is a hollowed-out federal government and public health infrastructure, the result not only of decisions and incompetence of the current lame-duck administration, but of decades of disinvestment.

To understand how our system of public health is vital to the entire body politic, Melissa and Dorian check-in with Dr. Monica McLemore, associate professor of Family Health Care Nursing at the University of California–San Francisco, where she is an affiliated scientist with Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, and a member of the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health. Reframing the conversation of health away from a private, individualistic clinical model and toward a comprehensive, collective public health model, McLemore told us, has meaningful consequences for resource allocation and, of course, for lives lost or lives saved. When the public health system is working well, its work tends to be invisible, but as McLemore explains, we all might be living with Covid-19 for a long time, even with the promise of vaccines.

Your hosts then check in with—and get a final word from—Dr. Chris Pernell, a board-certified preventive medicine and public health physician based in Newark, N.J. Dr. Pernell reminds us of the necessity of well-functioning public health systems in creating healthy individuals, families, and communities. Sharing a truly personal story of how the deadly coronavirus went beyond her practice to affect her loved ones at home, she reminds us of the power of storytelling to create a more just, equitable, and accountable system of public health.

Transforming analysis into action, the System Check Team gives listeners three action items this week:

  1. Mask Up. Protect yourself, your loved ones, and your community by wearing a mask, and continuing to follow trusted guidelines around social distancing and other preventative steps to stop the spread of Covid-19.
  2. Stay informed with the latest updates from The Nation, on everything from whether and how you’ll be able to get vaccinated, to how messaging alone is not enough to fix our public health crisis, to analysis on the Biden administration’s appointments and personnel, to ideas around creating a Coronavirus Commission modeled after the 9/11 Commission.
  3. Get active and stay engaged! Continue to keep your eyes on Georgia and support efforts on the ground to expand democracy and sustain voter mobilization in the run-off election for the state’s two Senate seats on January 5, 2021 which will determine control of the Senate. The outcome of this race will determine just how bold and progressive the federal government’s response will be to the crisis in our public health system. It will also determine the national response to the other intertwined crises—especially of the system of poverty and other systems of injustice that continue to marginalize far too many.

As always, we welcome your additions to our Checklist! Use our Twitter and Facebook pages to add your comments, suggested actions, and organizations to support. And if you like the show, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts for new episodes every Friday.

System Check is a project of The Nation magazine, hosted by Melissa Harris-Perry and Dorian Warren and produced by Sophia Steinert-Evoy. Support for System Check comes from Omidyar Network, a social change venture that is reimagining how capitalism should work. Learn more about their efforts to recenter our economy around individuals, community, and societal well-being at Our executive producer is Frank Reynolds. Our theme music is by Brooklyn-based artist and producer Jachary.

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