This expert details why free-market ideology fails in the face of a pandemic

This expert details why free-market ideology fails in the face of a pandemic
Monika Janzer, 86th Force Support Squadron library technician, hands a bag of books to a customer at the library at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, June 18, 2020. The curbside window helps to maintain physical distancing during COVID-19.(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jennifer Gonzales)

With the COVID-19 pandemic having killed more than 450,000 people in the United States and over 2.2 million worldwide — according to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore — universal health care is looking better and better to millions of Americans. President Joe Biden opposes the type of Medicare-for-all program favored by Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, but he favors universal health care via an expansion of Obamacare combined with a public health option. Law professor/public health expert Wendy E. Parmet argues in favor of a public/private approach to public health in an article published by The Atlantic on February 4 — and she stresses that it is unrealistic to rely on the private sector exclusively when it comes to health policy.

In other words, the vaunted "free markets for everything" approach advocated by the right wing for decades utterly fails during a pandemic.

"Unquestionably, the private sector has a role to play in public health — just look at the private companies that produced the vaccines and the private hospitals that have cared for the ill," explains Parmet, who serves as director of the Center for Health Policy and Law at Northeastern University in Boston. "But to rely on it to protect the public's health is pure folly. As the pandemic has shown only too well, private and public interests do not always align."

Parmet continues, "Before COVID-19, for example, hospitals focused on their bottom line and failed to stock up on personal protective gear or extra ventilators — even though they knew a pandemic could strike. Once one did, competitive pressures also pushed many businesses, such as restaurants and meatpacking plants, to stay open and overlook the health of their employees and communities, even as they became sources of infection. To depend now on the private sector to increase vaccination rates would further underscore America's tepid commitment to the basic principles of public health."

The public health expert notes that Americans are relying "more and more on the private sector to provide basic public-health functions."

"They expect their employers to offer wellness programs and provide them with useful health information, even as they deplore public-sector nannyism," Parmet explains. "And they count on private hospitals, which have largely replaced once-common public hospitals, to invest in community health. While governmental public-health funding is reviled as wasteful, private initiatives to improve population health are viewed as 'smart investments.'"

Nonetheless, Parmet adds, "The government's role in public health is vital."

"Even when employers want to act in the best interest of their employees and customers — and no doubt many do — they may lack the information and means to do so," Parmet notes. "Although many large institutions have the capacity to research the science and assess the ethical implications of the health policies they impose, most small businesses have neither the resources nor the expertise to do the same. Nor can customers or workers in nonunionized workplaces readily make their views count."

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