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Coronavirus and Democracy by Dr. Michael Fine

By Dr. Michael Fine

March 16th, 2020

Think about this. The housed can go into a room and close the door, and protect themselves from getting this disease. The homeless sit together in common spaces at shelters and in soup kitchens.

When we decided to close schools, we discovered that many kids depend on schools for breakfast and for lunch. It turns out that many of the nation’s families can’t afford to feed their own children. And somehow no one knew that until the schools closed because of corona virus.

If we do a lot of pretty wild stuff – isolation hospitals, travel bans, even martial law –if we change a lot and change fast, we’ll save the lives of a couple of hundred thousand more people, mostly people who are old or already sick. But to protect those people, we have to put the lives of young people, who are at some but minimal risk, on hold.

For most of us, Corona virus is a mild disease. But we are afraid of Corona virus because it will likely sicken so many people at once that we will overwhelm the capacity of the health care system to take care of them. But we have never had a health care system. We have a market that sells services to create profit for investors.

The lessons from China and Italy are clear. We can save lives, at least in the short run, by locking things down for three or four months. But if we are to be most effective, we have to do more than that. We have to create fever clinics and isolation hospitals. Convert existing hospitals to intensive care units. Build a health care system to take care of all Americans, and do that practically overnight. And find some way to support every American during this period, so no one is ignored or displaced during this period of extended hibernation.

To keep social peace, we need to fix what’s broken in our culture and fix it fast, otherwise people disadvantaged by our market economy won’t be able to stay home and stay quiet, and shouldn’t: many will risk more by staying home than they do from this virus. That means we need to make sure everyone has enough. Enough food and housing. Enough heat and water. Immediate access to health care when lots of people are sick. Enough internet and phone to stay connected. Enough money for us all to sustain ourselves during this period.

That means we wipe away all student loans and make college free for everyone, to pay it forward to the young people who we are asking to sacrifice now. That means we build a health care system that can care for everyone, the hell with what insurance card they carry, and that we do that overnight. And that means we take care of people before we take care of corporations. Which means wealth will shift from the rich, who have too much and have had too much for too long, to most people, who may have just enough but teeter on the edge unnecessarily. That means we do what we should have done long ago.

I have been thinking about the bankruptcy of our political culture for a long time, thinking about how we’ve let ourselves be polarized by people who take care of only themselves. At the time Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court was illegally blocked, we needed a general strike. When the Russian involvement in the elections and mess about Ukraine was uncovered, we needed a national day of reflection, reconciliation and repentance, so that we might see ourselves and one another, and defend ourselves as one nation indivisible again.  This isn’t about Republicans or Democrats. Both parties might even have people of conscience in them. But both have become impotent, slaves to people with money, people who like to hear themselves talk and believe their own propaganda, people who are out only for themselves. While no one has been taking care of the business of democracy, which is what this country is about.

Coronavirus has become our general strike. Corona virus might do for us what we haven’t been able to do for ourselves. 

Now either we’ll change, or many more people than necessary will die.

Talk about the fire next time.

We’re entering a bouncy period in which life will be different.

We can get through it by taking care of each other, sacrificing a little when necessary, talking to one another, and keeping our eyes on the prize.

Which is still democracy. 

Democracy works only if we reinvent it every day, and only when we remember to stand up for ourselves, each other and for justice. Unceasingly. Democracy is not a spectator sport — or a sport at all. Democracy is us, striving together to survive together.

Coronavirus is a little scary, true. But what gives me hope is that the way forward is clear. We work this out together.

There are signal fires on the ridge-tops and trumpets blowing in the streets. Now all we have to do is see what is right in front of us, hear what is all around us, and heed that call.

Batten down the hatches. And pass the ammunition. Which turns out to be each other, once again.


Michael Fine, MD, is a writer, community organizer, and family physician. He is the chief health strategist for the City of Central Falls, RI, and Senior Clinical and Population Health Services Officer for Blackstone Valley Community Health Care, Inc., and recipient of many awards and prizes for his pioneering work bringing together public health and primary medical care. He was director of the Rhode Island Department of Health, 2011–2015.

Check out Dr. Michael Fine’s Books:

Health Care Revolt: How to Organize, Build a Health Care System, and Resuscitate Democracy—All at the Same Time

Abundance