Michael Lighty
4 min readApr 28, 2020

US Response to COVID Reveals the Country Reagan, the GOP and the Democrats Created

Workers are compelled to go back to work, often for minimum wage. Small businesses cannot get the loans they need because big corporations scooped them up. Hospitals don’t have enough protective equipment for nurses, and sick people cannot get the tests they need. Unemployment benefits, paltry by design to “encourage” (minimum wage) work, doled out reluctantly by states who have archiac IT, are delayed and denied.

These failures are the result of a 40 year bi-partisan agreement that as former GOP President Ronald Reagn put it, “government is the problem,” and as current Democratic Speaker of the House said, “ we only want as much government as we need.”

So under limited government, who is doing well?

Professionals, mostly white, work from home in relative safety. The wealthy escaped to their islands, the Hamptons, and Lake Tahoe. Sheltering in place celebrities suffer from lack of attention, so they showcase their talents and their security. The Wall Street Journal assures readers COVID_19 is not much worse than the flu.

Except, of course, if you are Black, in which case fatality rates are double, or more, compared to Blacks’ proportion of the population. Except if you are obese, or diabetic, or over 60, or have hypertension. Latinos, including undocumented people, make up a large portion of workers considered essential, and are dying without, in some cases, basic treatment. These groups add up to a significant portion of our country.

In sum, if you an agriculture worker in the fields, or in warehouses and grocery stores, or as a healthcare professional or now in retail that is allowed to open, because the US social safety net is so frayed and weak, decisions are made out of financial necessity that should be made based on individual or public health. But if you can’t get benefits, if your business is shut out of loans, or if your state cannot provide timely unemployment benefits, what choice to do you have? Governors can’t easily correct these faults during a pandemic — and clearly many don’t want to.

To paraphrase David Bryne, “How did we get here?”

Through a combination of neo-liberal, anti-government policies that buttressed false notions of social value and individual worth. In the US acutely since 1980, money is the metric of what’s good. That is how Elizabeth Rosenthal described the US healthcare system in which money has become the metric of good medicine. “Greed is good,” was either a parody of the 80’s or a precise description. At the least, traders, corporate raiders, and investment bankers are highly valued, and until last month, much more valued than say, Registered Nurses.

Under capitalism, labor is valued to the extent it produces profit. A meritocracy of money will lift up not all boats, but those who “earn” the most. That’s the opposite of assigning social value to labor based on it’s worth to society. In the Reagan world where there is no society, only individuals, and government is the problem, the private sector is all and their profits the gauge of success and worth. In the Democratic version, public-private partnerships are the preferred social program, so we “means-test,” to makes sure only those who “need” help get it. The result is lower taxes, lower wages and greater inequality.

The COVID pandemic threatens the foundation of this bi-partisan approach. Suddenly, lower paid workers are essential. It’s not high-tech and specialty drugs that stop the virus, but basic equipment and public health practices, ultimately by the publicly-funded development of a vaccine.

Imagine if businesses did secure their loans in a timely fashion, and all workers had already recieved their first $2000 and on May 1st will get their next payment. Unemployed workers — gig or otherwise — were immediately covered. And all healthcare services were guaranteed — no out of pocket costs, no sign-ups — already paid, already covered.

Imagine the security. Imagine the peace of mind.

We would not be debating whether to “open the economy,” because we are taken care of so we can consider first how to protect our health. Rather than paying workers more — a classic “money is the metric” response, we would provide a completely safe workplace and pay workers a living wage everyday. Front line workers would be considered essential everyday, because humanity, social value and community would be the new metric of success.

Michael Lighty

Founding Fellow, The Sanders Institute; Former Director of Public Policy, National Nurses United.