By Brian Schrader
Beset by disease, economic recession, unprecedented political polarization and rampant inequality, it’s time for us to take a step back and evaluate ourselves as a nation. In recent times, we’ve descended into political infighting and disunity. We’ve lost the will to jointly solve our problems. But America is stronger than ever. Our power lies in wait for a collective purpose that we can tackle together. In this short series, we’ll diagnose our current problems and we’ll see what we can do as a nation to dig ourselves out of our current situation and emerge, raring to solve ever more ambitious problems and build the future we deserve — a future befitting the most powerful nation on earth. Before that though, we need to deal with the single most pressing issue in America today: the pandemic.
COVID-19 has disrupted our entire way of life and it seems like that will continue for longer than we would like or hope. The race to a vaccine and mass inoculation is ongoing, but it will take time to see the fruits of that labor. In the meantime, we are not helpless. While we have so far bungled our pandemic response and cursed ourselves with one of the highest case loads in the world, our current situation is not unsalvageable. We just need the strength of will and the desire to actually solve our problems rather than squabble over them.
Between now and when a vaccine will be widely available, the federal government can and should fund an immense contact tracing workforce. Rather than contract this job out to private firms or administer the program federally, Congress should make funds available so that every state, county and city can form its own contact tracing network. These people, who could be hired and trained within days, would comb the population, identify confirmed cases, contact the infected person, and trace their exposure to find the source of their infection and identify others who may have been exposed and inform them. A truly massive contact tracing effort, one that employs tens or potentially hundreds of thousands of tracers, would not only provide easily-trainable, remote-friendly work for those currently unemployed, but it would also help public health officials better control outbreaks and decrease spread within their own communities. The program should be administered by local and state officials for maximum flexibility for each community but be funded by the federal government, allowing for the scale of a truly national program. A program of this size is not only something we desperately need, but it’s something that local governments don’t have the funding to do themselves. Paired with similarly sized testing funds, such a program would boost employment, provide stable income for tracers, mitigate the burden of unemployment on state systems, and unite all Americans with a common mission: to help identify and control the spread of a deadly and dangerous disease.
For the deficit-sensitive among you: yes, such a program can and should be funded without raising taxes. This is for a few reasons. First, taxes during a recession often do more harm than good. Second, the interest rate on government bonds is currently incredibly low, meaning that it’s actually inexpensive for Congress to borrow money right now. Most importantly though, is the fact that helping people helps the economy. Numbers that look good on a spreadsheet now won’t last— not with so many people dying or without income.
These aren’t the only things the government can do. Congress should also appropriate money to help state and local governments with their budget shortfalls, and it should provide crucial funds to help elementary schools reopen safely and help businesses pay their expenses. Additionally, funding and equipment should be provided to older students, so that all of them get a first-rate remote learning experience, and we should expand rural broadband to ensure that those outside of the city get the same quality of education as those in urban areas.
In short, the current choice between a forced reopening during a pandemic or a safe but devastating shutdown is a false dichotomy — one created by a refusal to help fellow Americans during a crisis. Personal sacrifice is needed regardless of the path we choose. We all need to wear a mask, wash our hands and move our social lives online for now. But together, and with national effort, we can emerge victorious.
— Brian Schrader is a local business owner, software developer, writer and San Diego resident living in Normal Heights.