The coronavirus pandemic has revealed a number of fatal flaws in the ways the United States operates that all link back to capitalism. Perhaps the most egregious, however, is the country’s inhumane health care system. Given the global spread of Covid-19, it has been possible to witness in real time how other countries have fared against the deadly virus, and for anyone paying attention to health care systems, it has been clear from the onset that the American system, which boasts the highest costs in the world, was going to lead to mass death on a scale unseen in other nations. The combination of obscene health insurance costs, as well as deductibles and copays, and the fact that it is often tied to employment–a problem exacerbated by the rapid rise in unemployment linked to lockdowns across the U.S.–has left many Americans without recourse amid a pandemic in which the overall health of the nation has been determined by those who can’t access health care.
Dr. Margaret Flowers, a physician, activist and the co-founder of the progressive site Popular Resistance who recently wrote about the coronavirus crisis, joins “Scheer Intelligence” host Robert Scheer on the latest episode to discuss why the U.S. system was destined to fail Americans.
Scheer cites the following passage from Flowers’ recent piece,
Although the USA comprises five percent of the global population, 32 percent of Covid-19 cases and 25 percent of deaths worldwide are there. By contrast, China, where the novel coronavirus originated, has one-tenth of the number of cases and deaths, despite having a population that is four times larger.
“We spend more money than anybody in the world, certainly, on health care per capita. We claim we have the best system,” says Scheer, ultimately asking the doctor, “How is it possible that we have a much poorer record, not only than China, than most of the world?”
“If we look at the countries around the world that have responded well to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Flowers responds, “we find that what they have in common is that they have universal health care systems, with central planning, that are designed to actually address the health needs of the population. And that’s exactly the opposite of what we have in the United States.”
The health care advocate, who has advised members of Congress on health care policy, goes on to explain the stark differences between the U.S. and Chinese approaches to the crisis. While indicating that President Donald Trump’s delayed response increased the gravity of the situation, Flowers declares that the issues the pandemic has revealed long predate the reality TV star’s presidency.
“This whole problem really started before President Trump,” she tells Scheer. “As people who advocate for a universal health care system, we’ve been warning for a long time that the United States was not prepared for any type of serious epidemic or pandemic because of the fundamental way that our health care system is designed, and that’s really to make profit.”
The moral implications of a system set up to feed off people at their most vulnerable are coming into high relief now that the pandemic is sweeping the nation. Perhaps, however, the coronavirus will succeed in putting to rest a fundamental lie at the core of the American health care system, as Flowers indicates, that somehow individuals lacking personal responsibility are the real reason American health care is so costly.
“I hear so many times that people would be healthier if they just took personal responsibility,” the pediatrician says, “And that drives me crazy. When you understand that when you live in a society where the air is polluted, the water is polluted, you don’t have access to healthy food, you’re working three jobs to keep your family fed. Those are external factors that have huge impacts on health that people just don’t have control over.”
Despite the dismal state of affairs, and the daily death tolls in the thousands that are endlessly heartbreaking, there may be reason to hope that beyond the pandemic, a radical change is lurking. And it won’t be a minute too soon, since, as Scheer hypothesizes, pandemics may become the “new normal” of human existence in a globally connected world. Citing the frustrations she experienced during her time as an adviser to Congress Democrats such as Dennis Kucinich, Flowers explains how the most excruciating thing she witnessed was the government’s lopsided use of taxpayer money.
“It was just amazing to me how, if it’s for the Pentagon, if it’s for our so-called, you know, defense, then there’s an unlimited checkbook there,” the Popular Resistance co-founder relates. “But even knowing that a national, improved Medicare-for-all, single-payer health care system would cost less than what we’re spending right now, we still have not been able to win it, although I think that we’re very close.
“I think that this pandemic has so exposed the failures of our health care system,” she concludes, “that we have a unique opportunity right now. We’ve been building for it for a long time, but I think we have an opportunity to really push and win that.”
In the media player above, listen to the full discussion between Flowers and Scheer as they talk about the global response to coronavirus, the economic and political implications of it, and the rise in surveillance linked to fighting Covid-19. You can read the full transcript below the credits.
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence. And the intelligence always comes from my guests. But I really know very little about this subject compared to Margaret Flowers–Dr. Margaret Flowers, who in addition to having been a practicing pediatrician for 17 years, is maybe the most significant person working on health care legislation. I talked to ex-Congressman Dennis Kucinich about her work with people in Congress, and he couldn’t have been more praiseworthy of her. She is the co-director of Popular Resistance, [and] along with attorney Kevin Zeese puts out an incredible, maybe the best website on the web right now for progressive news and opinion, PopularResistance.org. And she’s an advisor to the board of Physicians for a National Health Program.
And the reason I wanted to talk to Margaret is because it seems to me this is a teaching moment about what we do and do not do properly in terms of health care. And I want to begin with one statistic that I got from an article that Dr. Margaret Flowers wrote, pointing out an enormous contradiction. This is a time when our president is demonizing China and even trying to start a new Cold War, I guess, with China over how they mismanaged or handled, he calls it “the Chinese virus.”
But there’s one statistic that jumps out that I got originally from Dr. Flowers’ article. And she says, “Although”–I’m quoting–“Although the USA comprises five percent of the global population, 32 percent of COVID-19 cases and 25 percent of deaths worldwide are there. By contrast, China, where the [novel corona]virus originated, has one-tenth of the number of cases and deaths, despite having a population that is four times larger” than the United States.
That is a startling comparison. Why have they–we spend more money than anybody in the world, certainly, on health care per capita. We claim we have the best system. Most of the death, the largest percentage, came in our most sophisticated center of Manhattan, with certainly great medical schools, great medical system. How is it possible that we have a much poorer record, not only than China, than most of the world?
MF: Right. It’s a very sad, you know, fact. If we look at the countries around the world that have responded well to the COVID-19 pandemic, we find that what they have in common is that they have universal health care systems, with central planning, that are designed to actually address the health needs of the population. And that’s exactly the opposite of what we have in the United States. So in China, when they first noticed that there was something unusual happening, they were able to run that up their, you know, chain of command and quickly marshal their resources to investigate the virus, identify it. They shared that with the world.
They, when they recognized that the virus was transmissible from person to person, they quickly mobilized their resources to go to the region of Wuhan and other affected areas. They brought public health teams, where they were able to screen people, test them, find out who they were in contact with and test those people, isolate them. Their goal was really to stop the spread of the virus, not–they didn’t talk about flattening the curve, as we’re doing here in the United States. They really wanted to stop the spread of the virus. And they even, you know, reassured people that the care that they needed would be free. They were able to build two hospitals very quickly so that they could care for patients who were infected with COVID-19. And so they’ve basically kept their cases in the low 80 thousands, while we are now quickly rising above a million cases in the United States.
When you look here in the U.S., the initial response by the administration–and now we know that he wasn’t really listening to his intelligence briefings–was that, you know, he didn’t take it seriously. And so we lost very valuable time. But then on top of that, not ordering the tests from the World Health Organization so we would have quick access to tests and really, you know, get on the ball finding where the virus was–that didn’t happen, because the United States has a habit of wanting to design its own things. Not get them from other countries, but create our own, so that the corporations or entities that make them can profit from them.
But really, this whole problem really started before President Trump. We’ve been warning, as people who advocate for a universal health care system, we’ve been warning for a long time that the United States was not prepared for any type of serious epidemic or pandemic, because of the fundamental way that our health care system is designed, and that’s really to make profit.
RS: But we’ve had warnings that pandemics are going to become the new normal, that we should be prepared for it. And not to get President Trump off the hook here, but the intelligence committees that were briefed about this crisis–in the case of the House, that was the committee that Adam Schiff is head of, a democrat. They’re a majority of that committee, they were briefed. They also, democrats and republicans, are both on the Senate Intelligence Committee.
So the group of people in Congress that got the same briefings that the president had, the same intelligence information–that’s bipartisan. And the democrats went on with their primary campaigning talking about everything but the prospect of a pandemic. And they certainly gave Bernie Sanders a hard time for trying to expand Medicare.
And, you know, it seems to me this is a–if we go back to Hillary Clinton’s health care reform, so-called, and when we continue up through President Obama’s, it seems to me that both parties have been unwilling to really do what a range of nations–you know, Germany and China, you couldn’t have two more different systems. But they both seem to be on the same page as far as some kind of serious universal health care.
MF: That’s right. You know, and I think the democrats have been a huge disappointment, because particularly the fact that they control the house means that they actually have power that they can wield, you know, against the administration to say: We’re going to hold up anything that you want until you do what’s necessary. But we haven’t seen them doing that. But then, you know, I was involved heavily in Congress back in 2009, 2010; that’s when I worked with Dennis Kucinich and other members of Congress, trying to advocate for a single-payer health care system, instead of what we got, the so-called Affordable Care Act. And, you know, it was clear to me then that the Congress is so dominated by money interests. And it’s like, you find members of Congress who may actually believe in the concept of a universal health care system, but even they kind of throw their hands up and say, the way our system works, you know, there’s no way that we could get that. So that’s why I kind of left that type of advocacy, although I still do some of it, and have really moved on to more of movement-building ,and how do we strategically shift power and win the things that we want. And that’s what it’s going to take.
RS: Well, let’s–I want to focus a little more on this teaching moment. And you mentioned something before, the whole question of whether we were set up for this, and testing and so forth. And Donald Trump has done his best to undermine the World Health Organization and say they were in cahoots with the Chinese, and the Chinese statistics don’t mean anything, and they are the ones that were responsible, and so forth. And it’s interesting, on this question of testing, we deliberately turned our back on the testing that the World Health Organization offered. That’s something people don’t seem to fully understand. What was the rationale for that?
MF: Well, yeah, and these were tests that were ready to go. And they’ve been used in many other parts of the world. And the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, basically said: Well, we don’t have a habit of doing that; we have a habit of creating our own tests when, you know, a situation arises. And then of course, the CDC ended up bungling the whole test so that even the first batch that they sent out couldn’t be used. So it’s part of this whole philosophy of our health care system, which is the problem. You know, it’s not about what is the best practice, what is the best way that we can address this problem. It’s how do we work within this very privatized, fragmented framework that we have that’s designed for profit, not for actual health.
RS: But right now what President Trump is trying to do is, you know, he’s got–one reason we can spend a lot of money now is we’re using the language of war. And obviously, anytime you have wartime, and you have an enemy, all the rules are–you can’t spend trillions of dollars to solve the problem of poverty in America. Lyndon Johnson pretended to do that with his war on poverty, but it took a real war like Vietnam for us to waste an enormous amount of money, and of course get 59,000 Americans killed, and millions of Indochinese people. But the problem with the virus is it doesn’t lend itself to jingoism, which fuels so much of what we do. And you know, the virus doesn’t speak any language; there’s no reason for great security, national security; the virus travels quite easily, without speaking; the virus is universal.
And as you pointed out, the Chinese were actually quite effective in, first of all, analyzing the DNA and so forth, and in reacting to it. Much of the world seems to be prepared to act internationally. There are actually Cuban volunteers, doctors, working in Italy and so forth; the Chinese and the Russians. So the old lines of the Cold War seem to have given way to a recognition that there’s a need for a global consciousness, global awareness. And then here you have the American president–abetted, again, by both parties–trying to turn this into another Cold War thing, that somehow the Chinese are uniquely responsible. There are even conspiracy theories that it came out of their labs as part of biowarfare and so forth. What is your reaction to all that?
MF: It’s interesting how, you know, our national security strategy has shifted from the so-called War on Terror to this now great power conflict. So much of what the United States does when it comes to our international relations is focused on how do we serve that national security strategy. So while we saw calls from the United Nations, and many countries, for a global ceasefire, for international solidarity, we see a new effort by the World Health Organization of leaders from countries coming together, trying to determine how they can best make sure that people in any country, rich or poor, are able to have access to the tests, the medications that they need to address the COVID-19 pandemic. They recognize that this is a–a virus doesn’t know any borders. It’s a common problem that all the countries have to work together to solve.
And then at the same time what we saw the U.S. doing, of course, is stirring up–trying to blame China, trying to weaponize it against China, stirring up terrible racism against Asian Americans that’s had disastrous results with, you know, acts of hatred against them. You know, refusing to really cooperate with them. And then on countries like Venezuela and Iran, the United States actually increased the unilateral economic coercive measures–some people call them sanctions–but basically, this economic war against those countries, making it harder for them to get the medications and other things they needed to address the health of their population. And then to top it off, we made military threats and are sending the largest fleet of our military to the Caribbean, to Latin America, that we have in 30 years to basically aggress towards Venezuela.
So the world is seeing that while so many countries are recognizing the need for solidarity and cooperation, the United States is pushing ahead with a very aggressive, militaristic, isolationist type of approach, and it’s hurting the United States. We’ve been declining in power, but I think this crisis is going to be one that really solidifies our decline as being a respected power in the world.
RS: Well, the irony is–and you can almost sense in Donald Trump that he’s torn. Because as a businessman, or as a snake-oil salesman, or as whatever he is, he certainly knows that the Chinese economy is a great example of capitalist achievement, if by that you mean growth. You know, they’re even accused of stealing ideas. But of course, England and the United States and every other major capitalist power has attracted the best talent from all over the world, immigrants and what have you. And so there’s nothing new about this. And the irony is at the same moment that Donald Trump is blaming China and holding them accountable, we have American planes lined up in airports in China getting masks, getting other equipment and so forth from the Chinese. And actually counting–as is Apple, as are many American companies; even Starbucks is active in China now, certainly our whole agriculture–our prosperity is really dependent upon having rational, good trade relations, certainly beginning with China; it would be good to have them with every country in the world.
So we’re at an odd moment for capitalism as a system. We’re not any longer very good at producing things that people want to buy and use. We learned that first with Japan, and we used to race-bait the Japanese a lot. And now we see it overwhelmingly with China, that other countries–India will come along, and so forth–that can produce things, and yet we have this very old-fashioned, jingoistic American nationalism at work here. And as you point out, it can be quite dangerous. We have a lot of students from China at our American universities. Where I teach at USC, we have 6,000 Chinese students who are great; they provide teaching assistance, they help with the budget. They’re great. They’re learning a lot about different systems, ours, theirs and so forth. But you can feel the rising tension in this country now towards Chinese people. And jingoism is the old standard, the false patriotism that has destroyed one country after another, Germany or the United States.
So are you concerned about this commingling of a medical emergency and crisis with, somehow, the analogy of war–which is, after all, what Donald Trump is really beating on most consistently?
MF: Yeah. I mean, he’s using the Defense Act, but he’s not using it very well. You know, this is a health problem. And it’s not being viewed as a health problem; it’s being viewed as an opportunity for big businesses; of course serving our foreign, you know, military interests, it’s been used for that as well. But really, what we’re lacking in this country–and you see it in other countries that have universal health care systems and other universal types of systems–is that there’s a real social solidarity that exists. Where when, you know, a crisis occurs, people see it as something that they need to work together collectively to address.
And that kind of sentiment, while I think it exists at some level in the United States–I definitely see it in communities that work together in times of disaster–but we’ve had now decades of this indoctrination in kind of this, you know, personal responsibility. I hear so many times that people would be healthier if they just took personal responsibility. And that drives me crazy, when you understand that when you live in a society that the air is polluted, the water is polluted, you don’t have access to healthy food, you’re working three jobs to keep your family fed. It’s very hard to–you know, those are external factors that have huge impacts on health that people just don’t have control over.
So I think that, you know, this is a time when it really is exposing kind of the flaws in our society in the United States. And I think it’s a real opportunity for us to change a lot about our society, as many other countries are starting to examine how they’ve been operating, and that maybe it’s not the best.
RS: Yeah, and you actually published an article or an interview that I did where I said it’s the worst, but also in some ways the more promising of times. Because I think we’ve destroyed the illusion of individual autonomy and power and agency. And suddenly–because I can’t leave my house right now; I’m of the age group that I’m very vulnerable, and so forth. But I think for–I know, because I’ve been teaching all along–using the internet, but I’ve been teaching, you know, 120 students a couple of nights a week. And my students are actually ready to learn. They’re ready to look at alternatives, because they know it’s not working.
And suddenly, you know, even say the universities shutting down–you know, you could have an illusion that, you know, Harvard was a community; Stanford, you know, among the first to shut down. You know, we are the Trojan family at USC–but the first thing we did was tell our students to leave! We didn’t take care of them. We didn’t worry about their health care. We told them to get out of the dorms. You know, go away somewhere else. And the whole idea of a nurturing, supportive community, beginning not just with the colleges, but let’s say the whole public school system, where we just said go off–somebody else will take care of you, forget your school lunches.
I wanted to ask you about what Sweden has tried to do. It seems to me for all of the put-down of China, the Chinese model is actually the one that most of the world, certainly the United States, is following. You know, surveillance, control, monitoring, restricting movement, isolating, and so forth. I’m not saying that’s unwise; I don’t know what the answer. But in a few places, and Sweden stands out–and you know, with mixed results, but not disastrous–having a somewhat different mix: not closing down the schools, allowing a certain amount of [social contact], counting on individuals.
Now it’s a very different, much smaller country, certainly, than we are. But I’m just wondering whether you think the surveillance response was a necessary one, and are you concerned about some of its implications? Because we now accept that our government, and that every government in the world, should have the most detailed personal information about everything we do. Not just our temperature, but our friends and where we socialize, who we socialize with. And if we’re discovered to have this illness, suddenly everyone we’ve ever talked to becomes the subject of investigation. It’s concerning, and not just concerning in more authoritarian, or overtly authoritarian governments. I think it’s concerning here as well. Is there a better way to do it?
MF: Well, I think it’s very concerning here. And of course, surveillance is something that we’ve been needing to be concerned about in the United States for, you know, decades really. You know, they say that data is the new oil, right? It’s the new moneymaker, and certainly, you know, corporations are mining for data.
I think that technology really depends on how it’s used. If you look at a country like Venezuela, which I’m very familiar with–and unfortunately, in the United States, it’s very mischaracterized, basically the opposite–you know, it’s the opposite of what you hear in the corporate media. But they have a system of community councils and communes, a very bottom-up, social-movement oriented structure of organizing their society. And they were able to use that very quickly to have people register online to indicate, you know, what was going on. And then they had teams going house to house, checking on people that needed to be checked on. So that’s a way of kind of using that to, you know, improve the health and the, you know, the quality of life for them.
But in the United States, I would say although we’ve copied the, you know, the model of locking down that China used, we really haven’t done the other pieces that are crucial in order to address this. We should have been, you know, immediately trying to identify cases wherever they were, and then isolating those people, finding out who they were in touch with, testing those people, isolating them, making sure that people who were positive were able to get the health care that they needed. That’s what they’ve done in other countries like China. But we have not done that here.
In fact, I became ill with COVID-19, I believe, in very early March after just coming back from a week in Queens, New York. And I was on the phone with the health department–three, I spoke with three people trying to get tested, and they had the tests, and they wouldn’t test me, even though I had been out in some public, you know, in some health facilities just prior to coming down with symptoms. So, you know, we just really have done the opposite here of what’s needed to be done.
I think in Sweden, when I look at how they compare to Norway and Denmark, who did take more measures of trying to identify and control the virus, I think Sweden has made a big mistake. And if you look at their numbers you see, you know, deaths per million in Norway and Denmark of around 40 and around 75. And in Sweden, it’s more like 250 deaths per million. So quite a big difference. You also see a very big difference in the number of cases, and their number of cases is growing. So I think that that type of approach is one that people are trying to use it here and say, oh look, you know, we could do something like this. But really I think it’s going to have a bad outcome, and already is having a bad outcome for the Swedish.
RS: You know, one reason I really enjoy doing these podcasts is I learn so much. And I think what you just did is, you know, a challenge to what I had been thinking about Sweden. And I must say, I didn’t do anywhere near the homework that was required, and I like the fact that you’ve taken me to school on this.
So let’s talk about the reality where we do need to know a lot about what people are doing, and from a medical point of view–how do we develop the confidence that it’s not being misused? And there’s another large area, really: How do we develop the confidence that the government agencies, private agencies, are really looking out for our interests? Because I notice now–and there are newspaper articles about it; I notice it from teaching and conversation–people don’t even trust science as much as they did seven weeks ago. They don’t trust these briefings. They don’t trust what they’re being told by health organizations and private companies. First of all, a lot of it seems to be wrapped up with the stock market: oh, there’s been a breakthrough on one way of treating–their stock goes up 10%, and so forth. There are a few exceptions. I gather that Oxford is being most successful in developing a vaccine, and there you have British government funding for it, so the profit motive is not as present. But basically, we’re in a time when the public is alarmed and getting very suspicious of the media, of politicians, and even of science. It’s concerning. And how do we develop some clarity about all this when money is involved, power is involved?
MF: Well, that’s exactly the problem. And you know, there is a lot of distrust in the system in the United States, because of people’s personal experiences with it, and the fact that they don’t feel like our systems actually have their interests in mind or will take care of them. We often teach about the principles of human rights in our work, and it applies not just to health care, but to many aspects of our life. And part of that is transparency, so people can see what’s being done; accountability, so that people are being held accountable for the work that they’re doing; and participation, so that people feel like they have a voice in what’s happening.
And we really lack that. We have a culture where it really doesn’t seem like the power structure is held accountable at all for the actions that they’re taking. And then, you know, when you look at some of our federal institutions, and just the way that money can influence them, in a way that information is suppressed that is harmful to people’s health–this is really problematic. I interviewed, not too long ago, a woman from the Society of Professional Journalists who was talking about the real decrease in journalists’ access to people within federal agencies. So they can’t even talk to people within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the [Department of] Health and Human Services, without having a public-relations minder that is there to monitor the conversation and make sure that everything that’s being said is in line with what that agency wants its narrative to be.
And so this has really undermined our ability to have information. And when you have this kind of money-dominated and private control over things, then I think people are right to be concerned about it. It’s why we really need to turn towards a public health system that doesn’t have profit as any part of it. It needs to be a system that’s designed to improve our health.
RS: You know, I think we just have the takeaway from this discussion. And I want to underscore this. And it goes to this whole problem of using the war analogy, which the president delights in. Because if you’re talking in wartime national security, you know, they always say truth is the first casualty of war. You have your false patriotism that George Washington warned us against in his farewell address, about the “impostures of pretended patriotism.” I keep thinking of that when I look at Donald Trump railing against the Chinese, and plenty of senators of both parties railing against the Chinese, to try to put it on war terms. But the fact is, the enemy here does not know national boundaries. As I said before, it does not speak any language, cannot read classified documents, so there’s no reason to keep them classified. And the virus is not that kind of enemy that Orwell in 1984 described: the convenient, external enemy that involves sacrificing our freedom.
So to take your three words–transparency, accountability, and participation–when it comes to health, there should be no barrier. Now there are, because of patents, corporate profits, secrets, people wanting to make a lot of money, justifying what they’re doing. But as a matter of logic, there is no argument for any limits on transparency, accountability, and participation. Now even though, yes, you can as a governmental matter for the larger good say we should all stay in our homes, but we still should be able to use our phones or computers as a way of talking about it, getting information, getting all the necessary documents.
And I think what is the big takeaway here is the departure from treating this as a health issue, and treating it in war terms. I think that’s really–we have a right to ask questions, just as I did, asking about whether there’s an alternative–the Swedish one, or questioning, as some people have, whether this virus was made in a laboratory. Some people raised that prospect. We do have weapons–you know, it’s interesting. In Huxley’s letter to Orwell about the difference of Brave New World and 1984, he warns at the end that the real danger would be atomic or biological warfare. And we have been preparing for biological warfare, as well as for atomic warfare and for chemical warfare. But it seems, from everything we know, that that does not apply to this virus. And therefore the introduction of the very thing you were talking about, secrecy, is really only justified to cover incompetence, or for people who want to preserve their corporate prerogatives and make even more money by keeping it all secret.
But there really is no justification for the very thing you described. It’s only because we’re using the wartime analogy, and we use the wartime analogy because it’s the only way we as a society ever spend serious amounts of money on dealing with any problem. If you can’t define it as a war, you don’t want to spend the money to give people decent health care, or job security, or deal with racism, or anything else. That’s the reality.
MF: Right. Yeah, you know, it’s interesting, because I was in the Armed Services Committee hearing once in the Senate, and one of the generals was there. And he said to the committee, well, I’d like to have another $500 million, or $500 billion, I don’t even know, it was a huge amount of money. And they were just, immediately they said: Yes. And I thought, wow! Actually, I stood up [Laughs] and said: Why can’t we get that money for health care, education? I got escorted out, you wouldn’t be surprised to hear.
But it was just amazing to me how, if it’s for the Pentagon, if it’s for our so-called, you know, defense, then there’s an unlimited checkbook there. But even knowing that a national, improved Medicare-for-all, single-payer health care system would cost less than what we’re spending right now. We still can’t, you know, to this point, have not been able to win it, although I think that we’re very close. And I think that this pandemic has so exposed the failures of our health care system, that we have a unique opportunity right now. We’ve been building for it for a long time, but I think we have an opportunity to really push and win that.
RS: Well, I want to end on examining that. I’m talking to Dr. Margaret Flowers, who’s spent much of her life not just practicing medicine for 17 years, and with patients and a practice, but also advocating for a more rational, comprehensive health care system, among other issues. And I have a feeling of great optimism about what’s happening now. And I just think of my own trajectory of my life. I was born in 1936, at the height of the–or the low point of the Depression. And yet it gave rise to the most enlightened period of governance in America, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a rich man who in his first four years in office hadn’t been as aggressive about it, realized this was not going away. And they had to really step up the Works Project Administration, and home relief, and the Civilian Conservation Corps–all sorts of programs–and concern.
And right now one of the positive things, I was just reading about this extra $600 that is given to everyone on unemployment insurance. And actually, it’s the greatest–short-term, unfortunately–but the greatest redistribution of income that we’ve ever had in this country. It’s startling. And it was done only in the panic of the moment, and the recognition that if you made people stay in their homes, you are going to have them go crazy and riot and change, you know, maybe they’d be at the gates of the White House with pitchforks if you didn’t do something.
And we actually now not only guarantee a minimum annual income of some subsistence, but actually it’s almost your full salary, in most instances. You know, particularly in states that had already had a fairly decent unemployment, you add 600 on, you could be making $50,000 a year or something. And particularly for lower-wage workers, it’s really been the most progressive thing. I have to give the democrats credit in the Congress for adding on to what was the administration’s proposal, but nonetheless it passed unanimously. And there are other examples. Testing now is supposed to be free. And if you have the virus, then you’re supposed to get free health care if you can’t afford it.
I think right now it would be ridiculous in a debate to attack somebody like Bernie Sanders for suggesting Medicare for All. I may be wrong about this, but I think–and this thing is not going away anytime soon. I think the arguments that people like you have been forced to wage and get into, you’re suddenly going to find yourself on the winning side. Because it’s logical. That how can we dare supply health care to people when we know–I mean, I used the cruise ship–I know I’m going on a bit, but let me [Laughs] just bring the benefit of my own teaching experience. When I bring up with my students what happens on a cruise ship–you could have the fanciest suite of rooms on that boat, that 14-story boat. But if the undocumented Indonesian or Filipino worker, down in the galley preparing the food, is infected because they picked up something at some port, the whole ship is at risk, as we’ve seen, OK.
And so in terms of that model of what a community is, we have to–for the first time here in Los Angeles–I live right here downtown with all this vast homeless population. For the first time, they’ve put a large number of people suddenly in hotel rooms. Now people are saying, why not buy those hotels and just declare them to be housing for the poor? OK? They’re there. They’re using it. And so suddenly, things that seemed utopian or wild or fanciful eight weeks ago, now seem very necessary, realistic, plausible. So why don’t we end this discussion with, you know, how you–as somebody who’s been an activist as well as a medical doctor, and a thinker and everything else–how do you seize, how do we seize this moment to advance a necessary progressive agenda?
MF: Well, that’s a critical question, and something that at Popular Resistance we’ve been trying to prepare for a long time. You know, you brought up FDR, and of course all of what he did occurred in the backdrop of a tremendous social movement of, you know, workers organized, socialists and progressive parties, and progressive platforms that they had put out there that they were advancing. And all of that put pressure on FDR to do something in order to, you know, hang on to power. And we’re at another moment like that, where people’s eyes have been open to that–when they see, like, oh wow, Congress could do that, that quickly? You know–oh, we could appropriate that much money, just like that? We could put people into housing? They’re suddenly understanding that the only barrier to what we need is, you know, us not taking our power, recognizing our power and demanding these things. That they can be done very simply.
And so I guess I’m very excited about a campaign that launched on May 1st, which is a general strike campaign. And this is coming from workers, primarily essential workers who are not being protected, who are not receiving hazard pay. It’s coming from renters who are not able to pay their rent, it’s coming from the students who were abandoned by their universities in this pandemic. It’s coming from all sorts of people, and it’s a sustained campaign of actually strikes and other actions to push for what we need. And I think that’s the type of social movement that we’re going to need. I think we have so many opportunities here, and we haven’t talked at all about the recession, which may actually be a depression. We’re certainly seeing outrageous levels of unemployment and hits to our, you know, gross domestic product.
And there’s a point that I was reading about, about pandemics versus kind of when you have a recession from a war: that in wars, they destroy structures. And so there’s investment, and rebuilding structures, and that stimulates the economy. Pandemics don’t do that. And so they tend to have a very long recovery time from the economic aspect of that crisis, of the pandemic. And so we have an opportunity to make the argument to say, well, we have so many things in the United States that we need to be investing in. Health care is one of them, education is another, but our failing infrastructure, the need to really restructure our economy, especially as fossil fuels are, you know, the prices are declining and corporations are heading into bankruptcy and stranded assets. We have an opportunity to say: Now is the time for a Green New Deal.
So I think that people should–you know, the pandemic is terrible. The way we’ve handled it is just disastrous. We’re seeing so many more deaths than we should have had in this country if we’d been prepared for it, or even just acted early and took appropriate steps. But out of this terrible crisis, we do have the opportunity to mobilize and pressure Congress and other leaders, because they have to do something. And people are getting angry, and people are mobilizing, and they are going to be taking action. So it’s an ongoing kind of campaign; it’s going to take years to win. And people will have to be persistent at this and recognize that. But you know, Popular Resistance, we try to provide that information. We try to provide tools, school for people to understand how this occurs. And I think, you know, if we’re not going to do it now, I don’t know when we’re ever going to have a better opportunity to push for these changes.
RS: Yeah, and for people who want more details on what Dr. Margaret Flowers has been talking about, you go to PopularResistance.org. And the reason I keep mentioning “the doctor”–and I’m going to end with this–is you know, it’s a priesthood, medicine in America. People work hard to become doctors, they learn a lot, they can save your life. And we invest a lot of authority in doctors. But we also know there’s another side to is; there’s economic gain, there are people who sell drugs through doctors, legal drugs, who gain power and money. And it’s a huge economic growth engine.
I think what has happened, however, is that the economic argument has been turned on its head, for the very reason you just mentioned: the cost of this pandemic, on every level, certainly beginning with the loss of human life, is enormous. The economic cost, we have no idea–we’re talking about maybe, you know, 30, 40 percent of the population being unemployed just a week from now. The figures keep coming in. We don’t know what the end, we don’t know whether–I could ask you as a doctor, what is your expectation about whether it’s going to be reoccurring; we know it’s not going to be solved very quickly, and then we know there will be other health crises, just as a function of living in a multinational world where illness can spread quickly, cross borders and so forth.
And it seems to me that we have a moment here where the traditional free-market, conservative, low-tax argument has lost its standing. Because we see that the cost of being indifferent to people’s health and well-being is so great, that you incur this enormous debt that you never–as Donald Trump said, we stopped this prosperous economy in its tracks, and we’re going to be paying for it for years to come. So the cost of not having adequate health care, and testing, and caring about people’s well-being, and cooperating internationally on health issues, and making sure viruses get contained–all of those things now have a hard money component. That if you don’t do the right thing, you’re going to impoverish life in every respect, including not being able to have any basis of wealth of prosperity.
So I want to end this by asking people to check out Popular Resistance. It’s one of the organizations and websites that provide a really important range of information. I want to thank Dr. Margaret Flowers for taking time out from her busy life, and even taking me to school; I’ll have to look at that Swedish example again, maybe I was being naive, and I’ll ask readers to go look at it.
But that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. I want to thank Christopher Ho at KCRW for doing the hard work of posting this on KCRW.org. And I want to thank Natasha Hakimi for editing these transcripts, and Joshua Scheer for being the producer of Scheer Intelligence. We’ll be back next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence. Thank you.