We are the richest country in the history of the world, but at a time of massive income and wealth inequality, that reality means little to half of our people who live paycheck to paycheck, the 40 million living in poverty, the 87 million who are uninsured or underinsured, and the half million who are homeless.
In the midst of the twin crises that we face — the coronavirus pandemic and the meltdown of our economy — it’s imperative that we re-examine some of the foundations of American society, understand why they are failing us, and fight for a fairer and more just nation.
The absurdity and cruelty of our employer-based, private health insurance system should now be apparent to all. As tens of millions of Americans are losing their jobs and incomes as a result of the pandemic, many of them are also losing their health insurance. That is what happens when health care is seen as an employee benefit, not a guaranteed right. As we move forward beyond the pandemic, we need to pass legislation that finally guarantees health care to every man, woman and child — available to people employed or unemployed, at every age.
The pandemic has also made clear the irrationality of the current system. Unbelievably, in the midst of the worst health care crisis in modern history, thousands of medical workers are being laid off and many hospitals and clinics are on the verge of going bankrupt and shutting down. In truth, we don’t have a health care “system.” We have a byzantine network of medical institutions dominated by the profit-making interests of insurance and drug companies. The goal of a new, long-overdue health care system, Medicare for All, must be to provide health care to all, in every region of the country — not billions in profits for Wall Street and the health care industry.
It is true that the Covid-19 virus strikes anyone, anywhere, regardless of income or social status. Prince Charles of Britain has been diagnosed with Covid-19 and the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has just been released from a hospital. Rich people get the virus and rich people die. But it is also true that poor and working-class people are suffering higher rates of sickness and are dying at much higher rates than wealthy people.
This is especially true of the African-American community. This disparity in outcomes from exposure to the virus is a direct reflection not only of a broken and unjust health care system but also an economy that punishes, in terrible ways, the poor and working class of this country.
In addition to millions of lower-income families not having any health insurance, Covid-19 virus is vicious and incredibly opportunistic in attacking people with pre-existing conditions and weakened immune systems. For a wide variety of socio-economic reasons, it is the poor and working class in this country who are exactly in that position as they suffer higher rates of diabetes, drug addiction, obesity, stress, high blood pressure, asthma and heart disease — and are most vulnerable to the virus. Poor and working-class people have lower life expectancies than rich people in general, and that tragic unfairness remains even truer with regard to this pandemic.
Further, while doctors, governors and mayors tell us that we should isolate ourselves and stay at home, and rich people head off to their second homes in less populated areas, working-class people don’t have those options. When you are living paycheck to paycheck, and you lack paid medical and family leave, staying home is not an option. If you’re going to feed your family and pay the rent, you have to go to work. And, for the working class, that means leaving your home and doing jobs that interact with other people, some of whom are spreading the virus.
If there is any silver lining in the horrible pandemic and economic collapse we’re experiencing, it is that many in our country are now beginning to rethink the basic assumptions underlying the American value system.
Should we really continue along the path of greed and unfettered capitalism, in which three people own more wealth than the bottom half of the nation, and tens of millions live in economic desperation — struggling to put food on the table, pay for housing and education and put a few dollars aside for retirement? Or should we go forward in a very new direction?
In the course of my presidential campaign, I sought to follow in the footsteps of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who, in the 1930s and 40s, understood that in a truly free society, economic rights must be considered human rights. That was true 80 years ago and it remains true today.
Now I will do everything in my power to bring this country together to help Joe Biden defeat the most dangerous president in modern American history. And I will continue to make the vigorous case that we must address the inequalities that contributed to the rise of Donald Trump, whose cruelty and incompetence have cost American lives during this pandemic.
Simply opposing Mr. Trump will not be enough — we will need to articulate a new direction for America.
The new America that we fight for must end starvation wages in our country and guarantee a decent-paying job to those who are able to work.
We cannot be competitive in the global economy or be a strong democracy unless we guarantee quality education — from child care through graduate school — to all Americans.
We must undertake a massive construction program that ends homelessness and allows all of our people to live in safe and affordable housing.
We must make certain that our communities are free of pollution in our air and water, and that we lead the world in combating the existential threat of climate change.
We must love and respect our elders, and make certain that all Americans have a secure and dignified retirement.
I get very tired of the politicians and pundits who tell us how difficult it is to bring about fundamental changes in our society. “It always seems impossible until it is done,” Nelson Mandela is widely reported to have said.
Let’s get to work and get it done.
Bernie Sanders is a senator from Vermont and former Democratic candidate for president.
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