Mary Rolfes: What COVID-19 is uncovering — and what we can learn from it

Sunday, March 22, 2020 - 12:42pm

Just over a month ago, I contributed to a Michigan Daily Editorial Board article on the COVID-19 outbreak, a piece which primarily warned the community not to panic. In light of recent events, it’s almost surreal to think about sitting in that room now, jokingly passing around hand sanitizer and casually discussing what I then believed to be a novel issue that would not have any major impact on life at the University of Michigan. And coverage did die down, for a time. But now, COVID-19 seems to be the only thing anyone is talking about — and for good reason. 

On Wednesday, March 11, University President Mark Schlissel announced on Twitter that all classes on the University’s three campuses would be canceled for March 12 and 13 and would move to an online format from March 16 through the end of the semester. Events of more than 100 people were canceled, along with all spring and summer study abroad programs. This announcement followed similar decisions by schools across the country, including the University of Washington, Harvard University and Michigan State University. Also on Wednesday, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak to be a global pandemic as it continues to spread rapidly. Sporting and cultural events — including the 2020 NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments — are continually being postponed or canceled, and on March 12 Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced all Michigan K-12 schools will close through at least April 5. All of this demonstrates how COVID-19, a story I and many others thought would be lost to the 24-hour news cycle, has rapidly developed to impact life on campus, in Ann Arbor and across the world in a massive and seemingly unprecedented way.

Despite everything that’s happened in the past few days, however, I stand by the original message the Editorial Board published in February — don’t panic. This is easier said than done when it feels like the world is crumbling around you. It certainly seems that way for me. As a junior transfer, my limited time at the University has been cut even shorter and the social network I was growing has been blunted. My spring study abroad is canceled and I won’t be spending this March making brackets or watching games. Of course, COVID-19 is much greater than any individual biography. With this outbreak playing out on such an expansive — indeed, global — scale, broad actions must be taken. Likewise, something widespread is being revealed. This viral event is highlighting the fundamental errors in the way we live and the way our societies are structured. If we pay close attention to what is being uncovered and respond with meaningful action, the COVID-19 outbreak can be a learning opportunity.

The development of COVID-19 has coincided with the 2020 presidential primaries, and one of the key talking points in the goal to unseat President Donald Trump is health care reform. Editorial Board endorsed candidate Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., argues this outbreak has shown America the necessity of adopting Medicare for All. When a health crisis has the potential to impact everyone, it becomes clear that everyone should have access to high-quality care. While some insurers have pledged to cover the cost of the coronavirus test, the expense of further testing and treatment that will accompany a positive result may prevent individuals from seeking the care they need. Moreover, not everyone has access to health insurance — in 2018, 27.5 million Americans were uninsured. And many of those with insurance have prohibitively expensive barriers to accessing coverage, such as high deductibles, copays and out-of-network costs, all factors which are especially salient given the current economic crisis that has accompanied COVID-19. 

Even long before the outbreak began, the American health care structure has been shaping how this or any other public health concern would play out. Millions of Americans are denied the preventive care and knowledge that could support improved outcomes in a crisis, such as regular check-ups and diagnoses of chronic or underlying conditions. Health care is a human right and no one should be denied the opportunity to achieve their best health — or survive a pandemic — based on their socioeconomic status. COVID-19 has fully exposed the flaws of a largely private insurance market and an overpriced medical system. It has given us evidence of an urgent need to entirely restructure how we design and distribute health care. 

Beyond treating coronavirus, the wide-scale preventative measures enacted to slow the disease’s spread provide a chance at a re-evaluation of how we work in America. Several of the world’s largest companies, including Michigan-headquartered Ford and General Motors, tech giants Amazon and Google and financial firms JPMorgan, Chase and Goldman Sachs, have instituted work-from-home policies for at least some employees. Like the University, a substantial number of academic institutions are transitioning to remote learning. It seems COVID-19 has finally motivated the world’s largest and most influential institutions to consider policies that disability advocates have been pushing: more expansive, accessible work-from-home policies. These remote policies can spur innovation which will shape a more accessible working landscape for all people of varying abilities. We can discover that it is entirely possible to be productive from home — for some, it may be far more productive than sitting in an office. We can build a more flexible schedule in which productivity is not limited from nine-to-five. We can even reconstruct the concept of productivity, acknowledging the importance of work across the gamut of pay grades and pushing for living wages

Of course, not all work can realistically be done remotely — retail and customer service are notable examples. For these roles, we must mandate paid sick leave, as illness should not prevent one from making rent or putting dinner on the table. In customer-facing roles, especially those involving food, people should not be working when sick — for their own health and for the health of others. Across the board, we must normalize the often-chastised concept of taking a sick day. Our current working environment pushes for self-sacrifice for the goal of productivity, but a rapidly spreading and potentially deadly virus is a grave reminder of our limited time and the importance of prioritizing the well-being of ourselves and of others over material gains. This outbreak is a call to reconsider how we view work in our global society and to rediscover a healthier work-life balance.

COVID-19 is having radical impacts on both local and global communities, and the ramifications will be felt for years to come, fundamentally changing the way we live. And where there is change, there is opportunity. It’s absolutely justified to feel like the world is falling apart and to have the associated panic for a period of time — my now-private Twitter feed is a primary example. But if we adopt a mindset of acknowledging the flaws of modernity which COVID-19 has brought center-stage and strive to take action in response, we may emerge from the chaos on the path to a society that is more fair and equitable than the one we had before. In this period of temporary social distance, it’s especially critical to keep in mind that it’s not me, it’s us. Let’s capitalize on this opportunity to think and act radically for a better future. This contemplative approach is imperative to emerging successfully from COVID-19 — along with washing our hands for at least 20 seconds.

Mary Rolfes can be reached at morolfes@umich.edu.