A New York Times article on Saturday talked about Frank Wucinski and his three-year-old daughter, both of whom were flown back from Wuhan, tested negative for the coronavirus and quarantined. They now face $3,918 in medical fees, including $2,598 from an ambulance charge. The article tells us that “The International Federation of Health Plans estimates that the average day in a U.S. hospital costs $4,293, compared with $1,308 in Australia and $481 in Spain. They may be especially costly for patients without health insurance or those who have large deductibles, which they must pay before their health benefits kick in.”
Most people who are against universal healthcare reason that taxing everybody to pay for some people is akin to the sort of big government intervention that impinges on Americans’ freedom. In their view, those who are forced to depend on universal healthcare are regarded as parasites, unwilling and unable to pay for their own healthcare.
Public resistance to universal healthcare stems from a lack of empathy, an unwillingness to aid someone else at a cost to yourself and a fear of having your hard-earned money taken away by the government to benefit the undeserving. And yet, the result is ironically a system that forces those who cannot afford healthcare to become dependent on a much larger empathy and generosity. Scrolling through almost any social media feed, you will find people constantly linking to GoFundMe pages to raise enough money for medication or treatment. Whether we feel guilty or moved enough to donate, the fact remains that nobody should have to depend on a few people’s compassion and generosity to survive, nor are we individually responsible for someone else’s healthcare. The issue is that the healthcare system is hugely inadequate, and our feeling of individual empathy needs to become a collective empathy directed to finding a solution.
This is particularly pertinent in a time of widespread panic that envelopes people during a health crisis or pandemic such as the current one. If the thought of somebody potentially infected with coronavirus handling your food, public sanitation or any other service job concerns you, then surely you must support their ability to take sick days and to afford medical screenings and treatment. If you look around on the street and can’t be certain that no one is ill and contagious, then you must support universal healthcare. The importance of readily available and affordable healthcare is as simple as preventing the spread of an infection, whether to you, a loved one or a stranger.
Singapore has been praised for its effective handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, which has seen a total of 106 infected cases with 72 discharged and the first case of someone recovering without medical treatment. But a crucial factor in the effectiveness of Singapore’s response is that the government is paying for all COVID-19 related medical fees, on top of an already subsidized public healthcare system. Fear of the cost of testing and treatment may have contributed to the initial spread in China, and the current escalation in other countries. If the COVID-19 crisis escalates here, it is important for the US to first remove any barriers, particularly economic ones, barring people from receiving medical attention.
In a tweet on Jan. 24, Senator Bernie Sanders posed the question, “Have you ever avoided taking an ambulance because you could not afford it?” The responses to Sanders’ question ranged from incredible leaps of logic (that free ambulances would equate to free taxi rides), to genuine horror stories by people who have suffered from a lack of affordable healthcare. One tweeter said that his friend had passed away from diabetes that week, having not qualified for Medicare and was unable to afford in-home care. This is the precarious balance on which U.S. healthcare rests.
The COVID-19 health crisis crystallizes the argument for universal healthcare. We should move beyond the reductionist perspective that it is a parasitic drain on public resources, and instead consider how maximizing each individual’s potential to receive medical treatment in turn maximizes the collective health of society.
Public health policies that do not sufficiently protect and cover the most vulnerable become a threat to the whole of society when an outbreak arises. The cost to society when that happens would then be much greater than the cost of funding universal healthcare in the first place.
MIRANDA JEYARETNAM is a first year in Pierson College. Her column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .