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Opinion

Opinion: Coronavirus proved Bernie Sanders right. But only partly

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)
Sen. Bernie Sanders, shown on March 11, withdrew from the Democratic presidential primary Wednesday.
(Joseph Prezioso / AFP-Getty Images)

One piece of conventional wisdom circulating in the wake of Bernie Sanders’ withdrawal from the Democratic presidential primary is that the COVID-19 pandemic proves he was right about healthcare.

In truth, it proves him half right.

The pandemic is causing millions of people to lose their jobs and their health insurance just when they are most in need of coverage. If this country had universal insurance coverage, as the vast majority of the civilized world does, that wouldn’t be happening, and the federal government wouldn’t be maneuvering to send billions of dollars in emergency aid to hospitals and state health programs.

Sanders famously championed universal coverage, and every candidate in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 embraced that goal. But Sanders’ approach to universal coverage, “Medicare for all,” is not the only way to make sure everyone is insured, as his rivals in the Democratic field pointed out. In fact, most countries with healthcare systems that cover everyone in their borders do not go as far as Sanders has proposed in centralizing control over care and limiting the amount spent on drugs and other treatments.

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Medicare for all’s centralized control could certainly have prevented the sorry spectacle of states and the federal government competing over scarce resources, such as masks and other protective equipment. But there’s no guarantee it would have led the feds to do a better job planning for the surge in demand for intensive care beds, ventilators and other supplies. The one hope is that it would be less prone to the budget pressures that led California to squander the stockpile it had the foresight to amass after the avian flu outbreak in 2006.

Then again, Medicare has been subject to repeated budget cuts over the years, so it’s not exactly immune.

Beyond that, one of the biggest hurdles we face in beating back the pandemic is the shortage of tests. This problem was exacerbated by early mistakes made by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, combined with the red tape the Food and Drug Administration imposes before new medical tests can be deployed. It’s hard to see how switching to Medicare for all makes that situation better. The private sector would still need to produce the test kits as they do now, and the government would still need to approve them.

It’s worth noting that other elements of Sanders’ platform could have helped to slow the spread of the pandemic. In particular, his proposed mandate that all workers have paid sick leave would have helped infected people quarantine themselves earlier. Yet with the outbreak being powered by asymptomatic people as well, COVID-19 would have been spread by people before they knew they should be staying home.

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