Editorial: COVID-19 exposed truths that America and California can no longer ignore
Since the magnitude of the threat from a new strain of coronavirus became apparent early in 2020, California, the nation and the world have endured a massive upending of daily life. More than 170 million coronavirus cases, a likely undercount, have been confirmed globally, and more than 3.7 million people have died of COVID-19 — nearly 1 in 6 of them in the United States and more than 62,000 here in California.
The virus has devastated families; the economic shock from the pandemic and the resulting stay-home orders put more than 20 million people out of work and cost more than $17 trillion in economic activity. Then there are the psychological tolls of financial insecurity, tens of millions of parents pressed into service as adjunct schoolteachers, and people enduring significant life events — marriages, births, deaths of loved ones — without the close embrace of family and friends.
There is no silver lining in this cataclysmic event. But to move forward, America must recognize the fractures, weaknesses and inequalities in many of our systems. We must move from toxic individualism toward collective uplift. We need to recognize the role of genocide and slavery in perpetrating systemic racism, while also pursuing policies that help all vulnerable families, who disproportionately bore the brunt of the pandemic. We must renew faith in expertise and science, which enabled the lifesaving vaccines that now must be distributed worldwide. It is imperative that the nation address — not merely acknowledge — the realities we cannot afford to ignore.
New math guidelines for California could make the subject more engaging and help many students succeed — but may hold back those who learn more quickly.
There’s a lot to analyze. Members of the Los Angeles Times editorial board, each of whom has expertise in specific areas, have delved into some of these issues in signed editorials below that offer insights, suggestions and prescriptions for reimagining how California and the nation do certain things.
A major lesson driven home by the pandemic is that our economic system disproportionately rewards wealth while treating workers as disposable parts of a business plan rather than as people with inherent dignity and value. Our unemployment insurance system needs to be broadly re-thought, and instead of doling out fractions of income to those thrown out of work, we should devise plans to help businesses keep workers attached to their jobs during short-term downturns while better positioning workers whose jobs are gone for good to pivot to new hiring opportunities.
About half of Americans get their health insurance through their employers, feeding a system of vast inequality and leading to a dark irony of the pandemic: Millions of suddenly unemployed people lost the employer-provided health insurance they would need if they caught the virus that tossed them out of work in the first place. Universal coverage is essential, though we recognize that getting there will require moving through a particularly thorny political briar patch; the state ought to at least start by offering a public option for health insurance.
We need a healthcare system that people can count on, that does not impoverish them just because they fall ill, and that does not keep them tethered to their jobs. Access to healthcare should be a fundamental human right, and we need to search for models that are cheaper and more comprehensive than the current one, in which profit margins and motives are built into nearly every level of care.
But there is far, far more to be considered, and to be done. We need comprehensive access to affordable child care so that parents aren’t forced to choose between a paycheck and their child. We need to better prepare for the next pandemic by knitting a stronger and a more reliant social safety net. We need to craft stronger preparedness plans, including stockpiling critical materials such as personal protection devices for healthcare providers, and then follow them.
We need to reimagine criminal justice not solely as a system of vengeance and punishment but to help our fellow Californians to live better, healthier and safer lives while protecting society from those whose problems and behaviors make them too dangerous. We need to address the disproportionate impact of the virus — as well as broad environmental risks — on people based on their economic status and living and working conditions.
Did COVID-19 escape from a lab? It’s worth exploring that possibility, but the U.S. needs also to examine its own pandemic failures.
We need to recognize that old models of work life are propelled more by inertia and corporate culture than by the needs of businesses or workers. We have been reminded of what the skies can look like when our commuter cars collectively spew fewer of the lung-irritating particulates and the greenhouse gases that are fueling the rise of global temperatures.
Our pollution problems, of course, don’t begin and end with air. Our consumer economy has also become an economy of disposability, where the convenience of single-use plastics outweighs their environmental impact, consumer goods are excessively packaged, household products seem planned for premature obsolescence and marketers exhort us constantly to toss out what we have in favor of next year’s model. We need to produce less linearly — raw material into goods sold to consumers then sent to landfills or, occasionally, recycled — and focus more on a circular approach, with less waste and longer-term support for still usable products.
Our educational system has bowed under the stresses of the past 18 months, an experience that reinforced how unequal the system can be. As schools return to in-class instruction, we should look at how to better align educational practices and expectations with the world in which we all live, including reassessing our reliance on college degrees both as an end result of education and as an expectation in the workforce.
People should not have to drive themselves into debt for educations that exceed their needs and those of employers. At the same time, people who want those advanced educations should be able to access them at less onerous costs.
Even before the pandemic, Los Angeles in particular faced a dismayingly persistent problem with homelessness that only worsened as more people lost work and housing. We must find better ways to ensure that people in good times and bad have safer options at night than a piece of cardboard under the stars. Recognizing a right to housing is a good place to start.
Overall, the nation has learned a lot from confronting some uncomfortable truths during this pandemic, and we are continuing to learn. It is a daunting task, to be sure, to remake significant portions of society and governance, particularly in an era in which facts too often are seen as malleable, faith in government is weak, and too many political leaders traffic in lies, manipulations and gamesmanship instead of the business of governing.
But it is a task we must undertake nonetheless. We will be a better country for it.
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