Tribune Editorial: We may be about to see why health care is a public need

In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, a worker inspects the operation of a 3D printer at the additive manufacturing research and application center of the Hunan Vanguard Group Co., Ltd. in the economic development zone of Changsha city in central China's Hunan Province, on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. The company has been producing goggles for medical use with more than 50 3D printers working day and night for use in hospital fighting the novel coronavirus outbreak. (Xue Yuge/Xinhua via AP)

Nobody wants to see a global pandemic that will strike billions and kill millions. But, if it happened, it might finally drive home the point that universal access to health care — in whatever form and by whatever means — is not an act of charity.

It is an act of self-preservation.

The threat that the new coronavirus could spread worldwide, overwhelming health care systems in nations advanced and not so, completely ignoring borders and immigration laws, is beginning to focus the minds of many people.

The financial markets seem to have wasted no time in panicking over the prospect of a widespread illness that, if nothing else, stands to disrupt global supply chains, stop travel and depress all manner of economic activity.

That, in turn, seemed to draw the attention of the White House, where the president went out of his way to reassure us all that everything was under control and appointed his own second in command, Vice President Mike Pence, to coordinate the stepped-up efforts to contain and control the outbreak.

It didn’t help very much that, even as the president was trying to calm our fears by describing the coronavirus threat as a small one, some of the few actual experts in such things were telling us that we should be very concerned and should be taking precautions, as individuals and as states and nations.

It also didn’t help very much that the new coronavirus czar is someone who, in past positions as a commentator and as governor of Indiana, was slow to react to the spread of AIDS, denied the link between tobacco and cancer and dismissed climate change as a hoax. Or that the administration will be trying to stop any information about the disease from coming from any government source other than Pence.

The looming threat also makes clear the need for a competent federal administration, a government made up of people who believe that government has basic responsibilities that must be tended to all the time, no matter who is in power.

Widespread panic will not help. But widespread panic is infinitely more likely without widespread confidence in the ability of our government to handle crucial matters of public health.

One matter that may be brought into high relief by the coronavirus — or whatever biological threat comes after that — is that the United States at once offers world class health care and stands barely above some Third World nations in its ability to deliver that care to those without insurance. With the right kind of leadership, we could stem the progress of an epidemic.

When you have millions of people who cannot afford to go to the doctor, who cannot find whatever vaccinations or other treatments may be available, who cannot go without even a day’s pay if they are sick, or keep their children out of school, you then have millions more people who are vulnerable to the spread of the infection.

In a society like that, people who can afford a doctor visit, a prescription, a sick day are scarcely more protected than people who can’t.

Universal access to health care has often been seen as a luxury taxpayers are being asked to provide to people who can’t afford it on their own.

People who have made that argument won’t be the only ones to get sick.