Katie Matheson: COVID shows that Utah needs to update the social contract

Health care for all and an end to the spread of dangerous misinformation.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Covid -19 vaccinations at the Mountain America Expo site in Sandy on Monday, March 8, 2021.

One year into COVID, my social media feeds are covered in ”This time a year ago, everything was shutting down” posts. We’re all reflecting on what has likely been the most collectively painful year in recent memory.

But after reflection must come an application of lessons learned. What has COVID and the resulting economic crisis taught us that we can use to make life better for ourselves, our families and our communities? And what steps can we make to fix the problems?

The first step might be ending Utah’s revenue neglect (unfair-and-under taxing).

Our state leaders have a chronic obsession with drilling holes in the public’s piggy bank year after year. Instead, we should ensure all Utahns can enjoy the promise of America by shoring up programs like Medicaid, unemployment protection and food security. We all do better if everyone in our neighborhood has their needs met. But when politicians fail to ensure everyone has access to health care, food and safe shelter because they want to give yet another unnecessary tax cut, they fail us all.

The second step might be an acknowledgement that it’s time to update a 20th century tradition that no longer fits our 21st century life, especially not after COVID: the old policy of workers getting health care through their jobs.

The public health crisis meant people needed health care, but the pandemic meant people were losing jobs— and job-provided health care — just as access to medical care became a critical societal need. While access to medical care is actually an urgent societal need all the time, the pandemic made it even more dire. Utah must separate health care from jobs and instead consider a state-run public option. It is a clear necessity for modern, post-pandemic life.

The third step is to address a rampant societal problem: the impact of misinformation, aided by unregulated social media companies, on the public health crisis.

Rampant and harmful lies about COVID continue to spread like wildfire on online platforms, and each and every one of us are paying a price for it. Proliferation of misinformation on any topic, but especially in regards to dangerous behavior during a public health crisis, results in a weakened and restricted society.

When our health relies on the health of others, one person’s reckless behavior — guided by a belief in conspiracy theories — restricts everyone else’s freedom of movement and right to health. Dangerous misinformation from questionable sources is harming all of us, and a free society requires guardrails on such harmful accelerants of misinformation.

Beyond the direct impact on the truth about COVID prevention and care, unfounded social media rumors have been instrumental in creating conspiratorial distrust in public institutions, including distrust in public health officials, epidemiologists and other experts, further threatening the safety of us all.

This issue, of course, requires sensitivity and a mindful, balanced conversation. It is a conversation that happened when radio and TV were new, and it’s now a conversation we must again engage for the age of the Internet. In fact, the problem is so pressing that Mark Zuckerberg wrote about this very need in the Washington Post in 2019, almost exactly one year before COVID lockdowns changed our lives.

COVID has revealed the dire need for the Utah Legislature and the U.S. Congress to boldly face the realities of the future by tackling persistent issues we’re all facing. Protections and limits are required for a healthy and free society. Whether it’s social, economic, health or tech policy, the terms of the social contract must be updated for life in a 21st Century pandemic. It’s time for lawmakers to hold up their end of the bargain.

Katie Matheson | Alliance for a Better Utah

Katie Matheson is communications director for Alliance for a Better Utah