7 lessons we need to learn from COVID-19

Lesson one: essential workers deserve far better

By Robert Reich
Published June 13, 2021 8:29AM (EDT)
A Parisian girl looks outside the window during the quarantine because the containment of the virus is essential. (Getty Images)
A Parisian girl looks outside the window during the quarantine because the containment of the virus is essential. (Getty Images)

This originally appeared on Robert Reich's blog.

Maybe it's wishful thinking to declare the pandemic over in the US, and presumptuous to conclude what lessons we've learned. So consider this a first draft.

1. Workers are always essential

We couldn't have survived without millions of warehouse, delivery, grocery and hospital workers literally risking their lives. Yet most of these workers are paid squat. Amazon touts its $15 minimum wage but it totals only about $30,000 a year. Many essential workers don't have health insurance or paid leave. 
Lesson: Essential workers deserve far better.

2. Healthcare is a basic right

You know how you got your vaccine without paying a dime? That's how all healthcare could be. Yet too many Americans who contracted Covid-19 got walloped with humongous hospital billsPeople with chronic disease, Black Americans and low-income children were most likely to have delayed or foregone care during the pandemic.Lesson: The U.S. must join the rest of the industrialized world and provide universal health coverage.

3. Conspiracy theories can be deadly

Last June, about one in four Americans believed the pandemic was "definitely" or "probably" created intentionally. Other conspiracy theories have caused some people to avoid wearing masks or getting vaccinated, resulting in unnecessary illness or death. Lesson: An informed public is essential. Some of the responsibility falls on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms that allowed misinformation to flourish — and on the government for enabling them.

4. Wages are too low to get by on

Most Americans live paycheck to paycheck. So once the pandemic hit, many didn't have any savings to fall back on. Conservative lawmakers complain that the extra $300 a week unemployment benefit Congress enacted in March discourages people from working. What's really discouraging them is lack of childcare and lousy wages. Lesson: Raise the minimum wage, provide universal childcare, strengthen labor unions and push companies to share profits with their workers.

5. Remote work is now baked into the economy

The percentage of workers punching in from home hit a high of 70% in April 2020. A majority still work remotely. Some 40% want to continue working from home. Two lessons: Companies will have to adjust. And much commercial real estate will remain vacant. Why not convert it into affordable housing?

6. It's past time for a wealth tax.

The combined wealth of America's 657 billionaires grew by $1.3 trillion – or 44.6% – during the pandemic. Yet billionaires' taxes are lower than ever. Wealthy Americans today pay one-sixth the rate of taxes their counterparts paid in 1953. Lesson: To afford everything the nation needs, raise taxes at the top.

7. Government can be the solution

Ronald Reagan's famous quip – "Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem" – can now officially be retired. Trump's "Operation Warp Speed" succeeded in readying vaccines faster than most experts thought possible. Biden got them into more arms more quickly than any vaccination program in history.

Furthermore, the $1.9 trillion Democrats pushed through in March will help the US achieve something it failed to achieve after the 2008-09 recession: a robust recovery. Lesson: The federal government did not just help beat the pandemic. It also did more to keep the nation afloat than in any previous recession. It must be prepared to do so again.


Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written 15 books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "The Common Good." He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, "Inequality For All." He's also co-creator of the Netflix original documentary "Saving Capitalism."

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