Ben Downing: Learning Lessons | WAMC

Ben Downing: Learning Lessons

Mar 25, 2020

I hope this finds you well. Typing those words in an email or speaking them here seems surreal. Instead, let me say this: I hope this finds you healthy, safe and coping with life during COVID19. I say during, because there will be an after. And when we get there, we must have learned the lessons this crisis is teaching us in real time. Chief among those lessons is how our current priorities set us up to prevent, respond to, and recover from this crisis. Each day that goes by, sadly, the evidence mounts that dominant priorities of the last 40 years have set us up to fail on all fronts. If we want that to change, we must change our priorities. Change them away from the prioritizing tax cuts, corporate profits and efficiency and refocus on public investments, strong social safety nets and resilience. 

As of this draft, there are more than 200 confirmed cases of COVID19 in Massachusetts. There are likely thousands more. The virus comes to Massachusetts at the end of two decades during which our Public Health budget was reduced 8.5% when adjusted for inflation. Instead of investing in capacity across the public health system, Massachusetts cut the state income tax and capital gains tax. Twenty five percent of the benefit of the income tax cuts went to the top 1%. During that period, the top 1% saw their income grow, while most other workers saw theirs stagnate. Instead of investing to promote the public health or prepare for a pandemic by stockpiling respirators and ventilators, we cut back and enriched the very segment of the population that needed it the least.

Many of those top 1% are also supported by generous employment benefits. COVID19 comes to Massachusetts 1 year before most employees will be eligible for 26 weeks of Paid Family & Medical Leave. Those benefits strengthen the social safety net Massachusetts affords all workers - but only after years of legislative stalemate. Business interests argued against the additional costs to fund the benefit and were concerned about Massachusetts being an outlier relative to other states. One person's outlier is another's leader, but even more telling is the rush by states and even the federal government to expand paid leave in response to COVID19. Finally there is broad recognition that forcing workers to choose between their health or the health of loved ones and a paycheck is a sign our priorities are badly misplaced.

While governments could have done more to prepare and to help the public respond to COVID19, past priorities have also slowed our ability to surge the resources needed to hospitals, healthcare providers and others on the front line. In the name of efficiency, governments incentivize health providers to invest in short term decision making, prioritizing procedures that generated profits over preparation for crises. The result? Fewer beds at times of crisis, even in our urban centers and fewer hospitals in rural communities where 121 hospitals have closed in the last decade alone.

Writing in the Atlantic, for Obama and Patrick administration Homeland Security official Juliette Kayyem, remarked, “a crisis finds a nation as it is, not as its citizens wish it to be.” COVID19 finds Massachusetts prosperous, but highly unequal and underprepared. Our current officials will do their best to manage with the resources they have. We should pray for their success and do everything the public health professionals, scientists, doctors and experts like Kayyem recommend. And when it subsides, we must recognize that decades of decisions with future elections in mind, instead of future generations; quarterly profits, instead of preparedness; and greed prevailing over the public good, left us less resilient and ready to meet the challenge of COVID19. That did not have to be the case. Shame on us if thousands suffer is not enough evidence for us to learn the lesson before the next crisis.

Ben Downing represented the westernmost district in the Massachusetts Senate from 2006 to 2016. He is currently a vice president at Nexamp, a Massachusetts-based solar energy company, and an adjunct faculty member at Tufts University.

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