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COVID-19 lesson: The free market failed us

For this crisis and the next, we must manage our future better than our past



(April 6, 2020) — The pandemic has dominated our minds for weeks. Each day, new important lessons are drawn into the spotlight, demanding attention.

●  We needed much better testing.

●  We should have comprehensive health care coverage.

●  We should have more reserves of medical supplies, and more surge capacity.

●  We shouldn’t have mocked other countries whose citizens wear masks in public.

●  We should have an industrial base that can make more test kits, nasal swabs, face masks, and ventilators.

These must all be national strategies promoted by political leaders. For-profit corporations and market solutions are inherently short-sighted and inevitably underinvest in resources we will need in emergencies.

Another lesson is coming soon, when a vaccine is found, and we wait for months to ramp up capacity to produce enough doses to treat our family members, neighbors and co-workers.

Here is a lesson: for 40 years, we have accepted the premise that markets will solve all our problems, and we don’t need national strategies. We traded our industrial capacity and technical leadership for cheap T-shirts and low-cost flat screen TV’s. Now we are dependent on supply chains in other countries to respond to our emergencies.

China, South Korea, and Germany have effective national strategies and strong industrial bases. China was able to mobilize incredible resources in response to their epidemic. Germany’s formidable industrial capacity in chemicals and pharmaceuticals positioned them to devise test kits for their own people, and supply kits for Europe and other countries. South Korea was way ahead of us in their public health response.

Our status as a global leader has passed. The Centers for Disease Control have fumbled their role as technical leaders. The FAA is no longer recognized as a global leader. Our investment in infrastructure has languished for decades. Students graduate with debts far greater than previous generations, and put us at a disadvantage in the global economy.

Governor Inslee’s recent message – that we have a “can do” tradition – points to a better future. In past emergencies, we mobilized resources, because we had resources. Our leaders acted with urgency, gave us clear goals, and mobilized our industrial resources. Our manufacturers acknowledged at least a partial obligation to the public interest and would respond when called on. Governor Inslee gets credit for saying that out loud, and with a tone of common sense.

One of the most frustrating aspects of this pandemic is that most of us are expected to hide passively in our homes, while front-line workers battle furiously and heroically.

We all want ways to fight back. When the CDC finally said we should make our own masks, we quickly saw hand-made masks and video instructions everywhere. The Czech Republic mandated masks a few days ago, and their people are sharing hand-made masks with their neighbors. We are ready for national strategies.


Here’s another lesson. This pandemic is one of the biggest market failures in human history. Our infatuation with the idea that markets will solve all our problems may finally be over. The message for decades has been cost-cutting, deregulation, privatization, globalization, austerity, weakened social safety nets, frayed social cohesion, and smaller government. That approach is exhausted, socially, politically, and economically.

Here’s what we need:

●  To treat public health as a national interest, not a market commodity

●  Universal health care coverage

●  To make public investments in health research, care facilities, and careers of care providers

●  To rebuild our industrial base as a national strategy

This coronavirus crisis is immediate and urgent. We need to think in those same terms about climate change, inequality, rebuilding our infrastructure, restoring our industrial base, investing in education, and stronger communities.

Last week, the Financial Times of London made essentially that argument:

Radical reforms — reversing the prevailing policy direction of the last four decades — will need to be put on the table. Governments will have to accept a more active role in the economy. They must see public services as investments rather than liabilities, and look for ways to make labour markets less insecure. … Policies until recently considered eccentric, such as basic income and wealth taxes, will have to be in the mix.

The taboo-breaking measures governments are taking [during this crisis] are rightly compared to the sort of wartime economy western countries have not experienced for seven decades. …

The leaders who won [World War II] did not wait for victory to plan for what would follow. … That same kind of foresight is needed today. Beyond the public health war, true leaders will mobilise now to win the peace.

It’s ironic that this strong language comes from a premier establishment newspaper. As we go into our presidential campaign, this should be a centerpiece message.

Stan Sorscher is a board member of the Washington Fair Trade Coalition, a former labor representative for the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace (SPEEA) IFPTE 2001, and a retired activist.

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