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Is US able to protect the lives of its people as COVID-19 spreads?

By Xian Jiangnan (People's Daily Online)    11:16, March 03, 2020

As the US braces for the novel coronavirus to widen its spread, the battle has begun to contain the disease and at the same time ease public concerns. But questions remain over how prepared the nation to ensure the safety and health of the American people.

On Feb. 29, the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams urged Americans to stop buying masks on Twitter.

In response to a surge in mask purchases, on Feb. 29, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams posted a tweet urging Americans to stop buying masks, leaving the public confused over how they should protect themselves against the virus.

“They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!” he said.The best protective measures, he continued, are staying home when sick, washing hands and other everyday preventive actions.

(Screenshot from Twitter)

But his remarks immediately drew a skeptical response. Many argued that he had just contradicted himself and made the general populace seem “expendable” while putting people’s lives at risk. “If they aren’t effective at preventing transmission then why do healthcare workers need them?” a netizen with the screen name MongoFarm asked.

The US government and CDC echoed Adams’ advice, recommending that people who become ill stay at home. However, staying home when sick may not be a luxury all Americans can afford.

Weeks of government-mandated paid leave (Source: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Family Database)

According to 2019 US government data, nearly one quarter of all US workers have no access to paid sick leave, and the number rises to 60 percent when it comes to part-time workers. In addition, there is no federal law requiring companies to provide it, making the US the only advanced country in the world that does not offer federally mandated paid sick leave.

"Missing a day of work can be financially catastrophic for them and mean the difference between making rent or not, making a car payment or not or feeding their family or not," Donna Ballman, an attorney who heads an employee advocacy law firm in Florida, told CNN.

A netizen named annpatricia23 said, “Without paid sick days, people will push through initial mild symptoms,” adding that the coronavirus epidemic period could be the country’s great learning moment about what is affordable, what is practicable, and the consequent outcomes in real world terms.

While paid sick days sound like a luxury for many, so does Medicare, which means a coronavirus test can lead to surprise medical bills. According to the Miami Herald, a man named Osmel Martinez Azcue was slapped with medical fees of nearly $3,500 for getting coronavirus tests after developing flu-like symptoms following a work trip to China. The man works in a medical device company that does not provide a health insurance plan.

“How can they expect normal citizens to contribute to eliminating the potential risk of person-to-person spread if hospitals are waiting to charge us $3,270 for a simple blood test and a nasal swab?”Azcue told the newspaper.

Uninsured rates among the non-elderly in the US (Source: Henry J Kaiser Family Foundation)

According to the US Census Bureau, about 27.5 million people, or 8.5 percent of the population, lack any form of health insurance in the US. In 2019, the uninsured rate went up for the first time since 2010, leaving 1.9 million without insurance - making them more reluctant to seek medical care when they are sick to stave off illness, including COVID-19.

“Millions of people are without health insurance, and millions of others live close to the edge… They are much less likely to go to a doctor or clinic at the first sign of a fever or cough,” one comment on The New York Times website read. It makes the US more likely to have a major outbreak than those countries where health care is a human right, the user added.

“Medicare for All is now desperately needed,” one netizen exclaimed, noting that rural hospitals are often underfunded, and the middle class and the poor are neglected in many ways.

According to OECD data, the US has 2.8 hospital beds per 1,000 people. (Source: OECD)

To add to these problems, the US health care system is also lacking in hospital beds. Based on OECD data, the US has 2.8 hospital beds per 1,000 people, compared with 4.3 in China, a country that constructed two hospitals in a matter of days with a combined capacity of about 2,300 beds and set up a number of makeshift hospitals with around 30,000 beds in Wuhan, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak.

“This country is extremely poorly prepared. We don’t have protective equipment for health personnel. We don’t have enough ICU beds. We don’t have enough doctors or hospital beds, or ventilators,” an online user’s comment read, adding that unlike the US, China has built pop-up hospitals, shipped military medical personnel in to help and created huge equipment supply chains.

The right to life, security and health is the foremost human right. Whether the most powerful nation in the world is prepared for the test brought by this health crisis is a question that is yet to be answered. For many Americans, all they can do is pray that they do not get infected.

“I’m worried [about the coronavirus],” a New York citizen said in an interview posted on YouTube.“But [I do] nothing beyond washing my hands. I’m trying to stay as healthy as possible.”

“It’s times like this that we really see the need for stronger public policies,” C. Nicole Mason, president and CEO of the Institute for Women's Policy Research, told CNN. 

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)
(Web editor: Xian Jiangnan, Bianji)

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