Our spring issue, “Pandemic Politics,” is out now. Get a discounted subscription today!

We’re at War With Coronavirus. And Bernie Should Be Our General.

Containment isn’t enough. We need a wartime mobilization to expand coverage, capacity, and production in order to test, trace, and treat coronavirus. And Bernie Sanders must play a major role in advocating for more aggressive measures.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (delivers a campaign update at the Hotel Vermont on March 11, 2020 in Burlington, Vermont. Scott Eisen / Getty

The United States government is not doing nearly enough to handle the coronavirus pandemic. While containment methods have been sharply increased through the implementation of social distancing, the effective reduction of traffic in public spaces, and the closure of nonessential businesses, the rate of infected persons will likely increase exponentially in the days to come.

What’s more, with too few staffed hospital beds, even with a highly effective containment strategy many will die from lack of treatment as health care facilities become flooded those in need of urgent attention. And while Congress scrambles to deal with the economic fallout of the crisis many of the existing policy ideas are essentially variations on a fundamentally defensive theme: tax rebates, tax cuts, relief checks, paid sick leave.

We can surely slow the spread of the virus through these policies, that is, we can buy time. Yet to really solve the crisis we need aggressive government action that goes beyond epidemiologic or economic containment. We need economic planning and a wartime-like mobilization of existing resources, personnel, and infrastructure.

Expand Coverage

Firstly, we need an emergency Medicare expansion to cover the costs for treatment and testing for all citizens. It’s clear that government health care has been far more effective at handling the crisis than patchwork systems, with South Korea as the world’s leading example.

While all countries are using the strong containment methods employed in the United States, those with integrated health care systems and universal coverage are better able to quickly steer their health systems in the direction of treatment and testing. With a single system, countries are able to aggressively test, treat, and trace cases while slowing the spread of the disease. But slowing the spread is only effective insofar as we can treat cases effectively and this means we need to greatly expand the state’s capacity to handle infected patients.

Expand Capacity

Expanding capacity would require a massive expansion of medically staffed beds for the sick with the goal of ensuring that the elderly and those who are seriously ill are able to receive critical care. New York governor Andrew Cuomo rightly argued for the use of the Army Corps of Engineers to build new facilities but the conversion of existing public schools, which are currently sitting empty, into care centers for those with mild cases could provide a major expansion of staffed beds.

Of course, next we would need to figure out how to staff those beds. Luckily, we have the best funded and most highly organized pool of potential care center workers anywhere in the world: the United States Armed Forces.

The rapid expansion of frontline medical personnel requires that we train soldiers (alongside volunteers) in frontline medical treatment to be deployed throughout the country but especially in hot spots to help triage with local medical staff.

Only the military has the ability to move thousands of people across the continent to meet urgent needs, and it’s a far better use of their resources than anything else they could be doing right now.

In a matter of weeks the Public Health Service working in coordination with nurses unions and physicians associations could train thousands to become “mild care” front-line medics — for those who are in too severe of condition to be trusted with self-quarantines but in too mild of condition to justify ICU.

Expand Production and Distribution

Now even if we were able to expand health coverage and hospital bed capacity we still have one major obstacle: the production and distribution of needed medical supplies. Right now — some forty-four days out from the projected peak of the crisis — we are falling well short of producing enough supplies to properly test and treat the disease caused by coronavirus. New Jersey governor Phil Murphy requested over 2 million respirators but received only 84,578. 

Here is where the greatest level of economic planning for the production and distribution of goods will be needed. The government must sequester — or at least commandeer the management of — existing manufacturing plants in order to rapidly expand the production of N95 masks, portable respirators, medical gowns and gloves, protective face-shields, and of course, antiviral medicines and other pharmacological products needed to treat the disease.

Further, the government must use its existing distribution system, the United States Postal Service, to distribute these materials to needed facilities and hot-spots on command. 

Given the rapid spread of the virus the capacity to treat it will be greatly diminished without a massive coordinated effort across public and private institutions. Yet in a country with well-funded and highly organized permanent armed services, and with existing public infrastructure available for conversion in every zip code, the crisis could be contained and the toll on most Americans could be seriously lessened. But this all supposes the political will (and skill) is available and to make that happen.

Bernie Sanders Is the Leader We Need

Bernie Sanders fared about as badly as many of us expected on Tuesday and yesterday he sent an email to his supporters sending a clear message that he is mulling over his options.

Ironically, it is now when his popularity could be marshaled to the greatest effect. Bernie is the most trusted politician in the country when it comes to health care and further, he is the most forceful and imaginative policymaker in the Democratic caucus. 

The Democrats are currently getting badly outflanked by the Trump administration, with Kamala Harris laughably proposing less than half of what her GOP counterparts were suggesting for stimulus. Further, Democratic leaders — relying on a commonsense view of a political consensus which no longer exists — have failed to properly criticize those Republicans with economic solutions to the crisis, many are actually attacking Trump from the right.

And if the Trump administration succeeds in their plans to offer immediate relief, while the Democrats squawk like stodgy budget hawks, the GOP could be in office for decades to come — even if their woefully inadequate policies end up resulting in many more needless deaths.

In order for the Left to steer the ship though, we cannot just offer different versions of GOP talking points around paychecks and paid sick leave. To fight on Donald Trump’s terrain — to quibble over commas and decimals in budgetary proposals for stimulus bills, or to question the distribution method for basic income proposals — is surely a losing strategy. We need to be more aggressive, and we need a set of policy solutions built around the need to use the federal government’s tremendous power to expand coverage, capacity, and production in order to test, treat, and trace the virus.

We need to talk about this like we were mobilizing for war. This isn’t just good policy, it’s good politics. We need to show that with a coordinated planned effort, and a little bravery to take on the corporate elite, we can win.

And who better to do this than the only senator who wishes to resurrect the spirit of the New Deal.

Sanders can lead the effort to reimagine government right now if he focuses heavily on leading the Democratic response to the crisis. And we need leadership right now, clear and concrete leadership from the only person who understands what to do.

After all, Bernie can be credited as the architect for the present emergency tax-rebate basic income proposals, which are largely based on policies he suggested to handle the dot com crash of the early aughts. And his current proposals, released Tuesday night, far outpace the Trump administration and congressional Democrats. They embody the kind of sweeping agenda that could make this crisis point a moment that ushers in the end of neoliberalism and the beginning of a new era in economic policy.

Bernie’s presidential future looks grim but his ability to fundamentally reshape government in the service of staving off a crisis of global proportion has never been greater.