Sunday, July 26, 2020

The Conundrum of Universal Healthcare and COVID-19

By now, there have been numerous articles and blog posts describing the necessity of universal healthcare (free healthcare for all) on the backdrop of COVID-19. The importance of a free healthcare system for everyone irrespective of their backgrounds has been emphasized enough and justifiably so. In the case of such highly infectious diseases like COVID-19, everyone in the society does need to be taken care of. The interesting point is that the countries with existing universal healthcare system was also badly affected by the Coronavirus. For example, Italy or France. Even the United Kingdom offers free healthcare as well, but it still got devastated by the pandemic. Then, it is a valid question whether universal healthcare could be the remedy for pandemics such as COVID-19.

Pandemics shock civilizations. It is supposed to do so. Before the detected outbreaks, a disease slowly spreads, and then it surprises the population by the extend of its proliferation. In such a situation, universal healthcare is a necessary tool for a government to take care of the whole population. However, it is not sufficient. No healthcare system could always be ready for the surge of patients amidst a pandemic, not even the best healthcare system in the world. We need something else.

The Magic Wand Failed
When an unprecedented event happens, we need to act with extraordinary measures and control that event. For example, if a pandemic such as the COVID-19 emerges, we need to mobilize our resources as fast as possible to protect the vulnerable citizens. We need to quickly contain the spread of the disease while we ensure that everyone in the society can continuously fulfill their basic needs. The pandemic demands such drastic sort of attention and mobilization. Well, this fact is pretty well-understood, and we are lucky because we have an excellent system on our hand which reacts to the urgent demand of our society by its "invisible hand". Hurrah, it is Market!

The holy book definition of market is that it caters to the demands and necessities of the public, and it is incredibly efficient. Unfortunately in reality, it turns out that the market is very insensitive to such human distress. The gatekeepers of the market are more insensitive than the market itself, quite ironically. 

With the expansion of COVID-19, the market and its gatekeeper governments were slower to react to the society's lifesaving demands, because the revenue and the other market metrics were more important. Although some countries had universal healthcare, their economic system was too much dependent on the market-based production system. When we needed our system to work for saving people's lives, it was busy figuring out the optimized time to lockdown the countries, so that the damage in GDP is less. We could not mobilize to produce enough PPEs for the doctors, enough ventilators for the patients, enough food supply for the starved. We have seen this from India to European "welfare nation-states" to United States of America to Brazil.

We Need No Magic Wand
At the height of COVID-19 near the end of March '20, when almost every country on Earth including the United States was panicked, President Trump had one of his highest approval ratings as the President of the United States. Modi in India was also enjoying great support by the Indians during the stressful time. The public really relied on the government, and was ready to adhere to its strong restrictions and policies.

The governments, however, failed the public. The United States initially denied the seriousness of the pandemic, and then dwindled on providing the essential supplies. The United Kingdom was not serious about necessary lockdown. The Indian government could not ramp up testing facilities during its own strict lockdown period. Hundreds of people died due to migration and starvation, but still "the curve" did not flatten. Many other countries followed similar abysmal strategies, barring a few. It is quite remarkable how the majority of the population sided with their own respective governments, irrespective of their ideological standpoints.

The governments just had to follow the scientists and listen to the epidemiologists and doctors. Most of the nation-states not only did the opposite, they also left the vulnerable population unprotected. At first, the United States issued massive multi-trillion dollars relief funds from its coffers, but only a tiny fraction went to the financially backward and medically challenged public. Most of the relief funds went to the big corporations, and the American households got a tiny one-time cash payment. Although it was a big step up from the usual trickle-down mentality of issuing all of the money to the top, the measures still fell really short of its true potential.

Such massive relief dollars and euros showed that the governments around the world are absolutely capable of empowering the needy, if they want. We do not need any magic wand of the "invisible hand" to help the public. We need properly planned financial ecosystem to distribute resources, especially on the face of a deadly pandemic. We have learnt this lesson after six horrific months of this lethal and global disaster. The question, however, in front of us is whether we will learn from our terrible experience and stop worshiping the sacred entity, "Market", which kills real people. Let's admit this - it is dysfunctional, insensitive and inhuman.

No comments:

Post a Comment