Margaret Woolley Busse: The rise of the public policy opportunists

Medics transport a patient to the King David Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation in the Gravesend neighborhood of the Brooklyn borough of New York, Wednesday, April 15, 2020. Federal health officials are coming under increasing pressure to start publicly tracking coronavirus infections and deaths in nursing homes amid criticism they have not been transparent about the scope of outbreaks across the country that have already claimed thousands of lives. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

I recently read an article lampooning cities that had previously banned plastic grocery bags, as now they have had to bring them back to avoid germy reusable bags.

Reasonable people can disagree over whether banning plastic grocery bags is sound public policy during normal times, but this is not a normal time.

Extraordinary times might require certain measures that would be far more controversial in normal times: closed borders, government checks to combat sudden loss of income, free medical testing and care for all, or strict environmental controls. But such temporary measures to meet extraordinary needs don’t have to mean we should permanently adopt Medicare for all, universal basic income, closed borders or even plastic grocery bags.

Nevertheless, opportunists across the political spectrum seem intent on using this pandemic as proof that their ideas are best suited even for normal times.

Especially worrying are pandemic-fueled calls for a more controlling government and even praise for invasive surveillance of citizens, as in China. A government that would track the virus’s every move by tracking our every move looks appealing under the grim lens of a worldwide pandemic. But through such a lens, it looks like our entire lifestyle should be upended: no more gathering at concerts or sports events, protesting at political marches, shopping at malls, attending family reunions, socializing at parties, or living in vibrant cities.

Permanently implementing these measures would certainly help prevent the next pandemic, but that doesn’t mean they are sound public policy for normal times. Similarly, we shouldn’t allow the pandemic to lure us into believing that extraordinary measures like invasive surveillance and expanded government control are appropriate for normal times.

Nor should we give the pandemic undue weight in evaluating major policies like Medicare for all, universal basic income, and more restrictive borders.

The best policy thinking emerging from this crisis will focus on how we can better prepare for future pandemics. Such preparation will surely include having a clear plan in place that allows for necessary border protections; enables a surge in healthcare capacity, including testing; provides directives on when and how to put in place social distancing behavior; and identifies effective tools to protect the economy during this kind of crisis.

This crisis will pass. It’s probably going to get worse before it gets better. But once we’re on the other side, we’ll find that most of the policies that were good or bad before the pandemic will continue to be so. Let us not be hasty.

Margaret Woolley Busse

Margaret Woolley Busse is a public policy enthusiast and social impact consultant. She lives in Holladay.