“You never let a serious crisis got to waste.”—Rahm Emanuel, chief of staff to Barack Obama
Perhaps channeling Emanuel, conservative commentators are using the coronavirus pandemic to champion the claim that our free-market health care system and capitalist ingenuity will prevail over single-payer, aka, Medicare for All, medical systems in stopping the pandemic.
To bolster their argument, they have zeroed in on Italy, where the pandemic is out of control and has claimed more lives that it did in China. Critics are quick to point out that Italy has socialized medicine while neglecting to mention it also has the second oldest population after Japan and was slow to implement social distancing and other measure to flatten the curve.
These critics also fail to mention the experience of another single-payer nation, South Korea, in subduing the pandemic, possible because it makes the United States look bad in comparison.
Both South Korea and the U.S. confirmed their first case of coronavirus on the same the day, January 20. That’s where the similarities end. Unlike its free market counterpart, South Korea swiftly implemented mass-scale testing along with consistent, transparent messaging to literally stop the pandemic in its tracks.
Falling back on lessons learned from the 2003 SARS epidemic and the 2015 MERS outbreak, authorities immediately orders up test kits from the World Health Organization and tasked its domestic drug companies with coming up with more test kits quickly. The first ones were ready to go Feb. 10.
Citizens are now being tested at the rate of 20,000 a day at 633 sites around the country, many of them mobile drive-up facilities. Because South Korea has a single-payer health care system, testing is free for everybody. The poor don’t have to delay getting a test because they can’t pay for it.
“Testing is central because that leads to early detection, it minimizes future threat, and it quickly treats those with the virus,” said Kang Kyung-wha, the country’s foreign minister. South Korean deaths from Covid-19 are well below the 3% death rate experienced by other countries.
As we know in the U.S., testing is still a developing debacle. For starters, we rejected the WHO test for one of our own, and the initial version had problems–it didn’t always work. Despite repeated assurances from Donald Trump and various administration officials, tests are still not widely available. Drive-up tests facilities are operating in fits and starts as the bugs are worked out.
As a result, we have no clue how bad the infection rate is in this country. If we’re lucky, we’ll flatten the curve before we even know it.
The Washington Post has reported that Trump blew off intelligence warnings in early January that coronavirus could be a serious problem in the U.S. He and others have denied that, but there is no denying that Trump and his acolytes initially downplayed the seriousness of the disease. Many of his media flunkies called the coronavirus a hoax or political hit job.
As The Wall Street Journal reported in an extensive report entitled “America Needed Tests. The Government Failed” published March 19:
“Health care officials say the current state of testing reflects both technical and planning failures, as well as a broader failure of imagination. Leaders including President Trump and Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar early in the outbreak appeared unable or unwilling to envision a crisis of the scale that has now emerged…”
Now that we are stumbling and fumbling to get the pandemic under control, Trump is not helping matters by suggesting that existing drugs can treat the disease and that a vaccine is just around the corner. That’s a stark contrast to the approach of Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has deferred to medical authorities and avoided topics where he was ignorant.
The difference between the U.S. and South Korea is leadership. They have it. We don’t.