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George Pyle: Poverty is the virus that threatens us all

Recent Tribune articles add up to show how we all suffer from poor public health.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tensions flared between protesters and police in downtown Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020 as dozens of people experiencing homelessness were forced to leave the camps where they were living.

If we are going to get anything out of this horrible year, other than a new president, it should be an understanding of how interconnected all life is.

It starts with the realization of how viruses spread, from cell to cell and from continent to continent, no matter how much we may wish that they didn’t. How the health of a few matters to the many. How an illness suffered by people you will never meet spreads across our economy, our political systems and affects decisions individual and collective.

Health care workers and facilities have been taxed to the breaking point as individuals are left with medical bills they may never get out from under. Which will sap the ability of those households to pay for everything from meals out to new homes. Which will reverberate through the economy to no one’s benefit.

Consider these interconnected articles that have appeared in just the past several days:

* A Salt Lake Tribune examination of state and local government spending shows that, of the $55 million in taxpayer money plowed into Operation Rio Grande, the effort to deal with an explosion of homeless people gathering in the Pioneer Park area, almost 80% of the cash went to police and jails. That left a pittance for detox, guidance and housing for those on the street. You know, the things that would make another military-style operation against the homeless unnecessary.

* Citing threats to public health, local officials last week ordered the destruction of encampments of homeless people west of downtown. There’s little doubt that the situation was a health hazard. But with no effort made to find those displaced a real alternative to camping out, little was solved and homelessness as a “superspreader” event threatening the whole community remains.

* The Utah Investigative Journalism Project laid out how evictions continue to toss hundreds of people out of their residences, in violation of both federal public health orders and common sense. That creates a vicious cycle of people who lose their jobs due to the pandemic, then are forced onto the street or into crowded accommodations with friends or relatives, providing more opportunity for COVID-19 to spread, further damaging the economy, leading to more evictions.

Each of those illustrates how we find it easier to be cruel to the sick and powerless rather than to solve their underlying problems. Even when solving those problems benefits the whole of society.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, speaks during a news conference on on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, July 27, 2020, to highlight the Republican proposal for the next coronavirus stimulus bill. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

The very least that could be done is the package of bills, promoted by Sen. Mitt Romney, adding up to more than $900 billion in coronavirus aid to get some blood flowing through our diseased economy.

People who have lost jobs and businesses that have closed — by government order, out of concern or just because they don’t have any customers — are the economic casualties of the battle against the coronavirus. They deserve to be fully compensated for their service, not just for their own benefit but for the health of the overall economy.

Meanwhile, Tribune stats wizard Andy Larsen told the story of how an impromptu fundraising effort demonstrated how many households have been crippled by medical debt. Debt of this sort happens nowhere else in the civilized world.

And Bloomberg News explained that the director of the White House security office came down with COVID-19, spent weeks in the hospital, had a foot amputated and is now depending on a GoFundMe account to tackle the $30,000 in rehab costs he faces.

This is what separates the United States of America from the civilized world, a belief that your health is solely your own responsibility, built upon the idea that only you will suffer if you are sick. An angry resistance to the fact that all health is public health. A refusal to admit that poverty is a virus, that, like other pandemics, affects even the wealthy. Denial of the fact that a rich safety net is the vaccine that protects us all.

George Pyle

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, is immune to voodoo economics.

gpyle@sltrib.com

Twitter, @debatestate

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