In countries like Canada, Ireland, France, Spain, and Sweden, citizens have access to universal health care insurance, meaning there’s not a single citizen that’s uninsured. The U.S. has no such option for its citizens, and the cracks in the privatized health care system have never been more exposed than they are now during the coronavirus pandemic.
When it comes to health insurance in the United States, it’s a privilege to have any at all, even if it’s horrible coverage that will leave you bankrupt in the event of a major medical situation. While there are public options like Medicare and Medicaid, most people aren’t eligible for them, so they’re left to search for insurance through the marketplace, to depend on an employer to help them foot the bill, or to go without insurance altogether, an option many people have to choose because it’s so expensive. (To be clear, those who don’t have health insurance aren’t uninsured by choice, they are uninsured because of their circumstances.)
When COVID-19 initially hit the US, the only way to get a chance at a test was to go to the (very expensive) emergency room. It meant a lot of people opted out because… money. Then, as the virus spread and the test kit shortage worsened because Trump wanted to privatize a pandemic, people started worrying about the cost of the tests which, once again, deterred them from trying to get tested, which likely spread the virus more*. By the time the federal government got a plan in place for more affordable testing kits, the virus had already begun to spread significantly.
Since there’s still no COVID-19 vaccine and most Americans went untested for so long, a good majority of people are basically just sitting ducks, waiting for their symptoms to arrive.
Even so, there are still some lucky people who have managed to escape the virus, and they’re encouraged to practice social distancing. But not everyone is privileged enough to have a job they can do from home, especially hourly workers whose paychecks are contingent on them physically being at work. So, many of them will keep going to work because… (again) money.
And then there’s everyone who is experiencing symptoms, but can’t afford to take time off of work. There are many people with jobs that don’t offer paid sick leave and they’ll most likely work as long as they possibly can because they can’t afford to be out of a paycheck for an extended period. This will continue to spread the virus more because people are most contagious when they’re showing symptoms.
It’s estimated that 20% of all COVID-19 patients will need some kind of hospitalization, and around half of the hospitalized patients will need care in the ICU, a unit where a four-day stay averages around $35,000 USD before insurance.
No one should have to mentally calculate a bill before deciding whether or not to pursue medical attention, whether it’s life-saving, treatment, or diagnostic.
If we had a better health care system in place, whether it be universal care or otherwise, more people would have tried to get tested and possibly would have self-quarantined. If there were a safety net in place for paid sick time, it could have slowed the spread and given medical professionals a fighting chance at keeping up with the demand they’re about to see.
But, our broken health care system is all we have in the US, and it is the reason we could lose the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Even the privileged who want to bury their heads in the sand can’t escape this reality.
*COVID-19 tests are now free for anyone as long as they are tested by the CDC (not a private lab). Check with your state health department to find out where you can get one.