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From crisis to crossroads

Commentary Photo by Tammi Harper

Photo by Tammi Harper

April 30, 2020By Alejandro Queral

Every crisis, no matter the depths of despair, creates a new opportunity. And the most impactful way to seize that opportunity is to change public policy.

Right now, despair runs deep. More than 50,000 coronavirus deaths in the U.S. alone. Massive unemployment. A looming state budget crisis. Rising food insecurity. The public health and economic crises affecting communities of color in disproportionate numbers will likely exacerbate existing disparities in health and wealth. In this cascade of crises, it’s not hard to see the breakdown of many social systems we had put in place – the safety net, the health care and public health systems, the economy.

Amid this anguish, we have an opportunity — a duty— to change our social structures.

While it’s hard at times to have an optimistic outlook in the midst of this emergency, history shows us how a crisis of this magnitude can lead to profound changes in our society and economy. As historian Walter Scheidel writes in a recent op-ed in the New York Times, “great plagues and other severe shocks have shaped political preferences and decision-making by those in charge .” But a good outcome is not guaranteed; it hinges on the policy choices we make. “Today,” Scheidel stresses, “America faces a fundamental choice between defending the status quo and embracing progressive change. The current crisis could prompt redistributive reforms akin to those triggered by the Great Depression and World War II, unless entrenched interests prove too powerful to overcome.”

So, even as we work to contain the damage unleashed by the pandemic, it is not too soon to talk about the kinds of reforms we need to see. In the coming months, our team of researchers will explore the long-term changes we need to see in our economic and fiscal structures. Some of the necessary changes, however, are already fairly clear. They include the following:

First, we need a safety net system that truly protects the most vulnerable and those directly impacted by the crisis. Changes to the state’s unemployment insurance system are needed to cover everyone that’s lost their job, along with more robust paid sick leave and other worker supports, in order to withstand the health emergency at hand and the subsequent waves of coronavirus epidemics that public health experts predict will happen late this year.

Second, we need a robust public health infrastructure, with significant investments from the legislature to ensure every health department in the state has the capacity to respond to coronavirus and other emerging infectious diseases.

Third, we need a laser-like focus on communities disproportionately impacted by the crisis. In communities across the country, Blacks and Latinos are succumbing to the coronavirus at higher rates than whites. In Oregon, Latinos represent 13 percent of the population, but make up 27 percent of reported infections (as of April 29). Public policy changes should focus on addressing the social and economic conditions, such as poverty, lack of healthy and affordable housing, and discriminatory practices in financial institutions – that have left these communities more vulnerable to health and economic crises.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed deep structural weaknesses in our social, economic and health care systems. Like cracks in the pylons of a bridge that fail during a massive earthquake, the generations-long structural inequities baked into our socioeconomic system are now having devastating consequences on Blacks, Latinos and other historically oppressed communities.

Our society and economy sit at a historic crossroads of policy choices. We can continue to prop up an economic system for the benefit of the very rich, or we can rebuild and redesign the system in an equitable way, where everyone benefits. Our team will fight for the latter. Will you join us?