Abdul El-Sayed highlights America’s 'broken' health care system amid pandemic

Tuesday, November 17, 2020 - 9:33pm

(Note: This photo was taken before the COVID-19 pandemic)

(Note: This photo was taken before the COVID-19 pandemic) Buy this photo
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The University of Michigan LSA Honors Program hosted Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, the Fall 2020 Helen L. DeRoy visiting professor, in a lecture and discussion about the role of America’s health care system in the COVID-19 pandemic. El-Sayed, who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2018 on a platform that included support for a state-run version of Medicare for All, also discussed the epidemics of systemic racism and insecurity.

El-Sayed said the first and most obvious crisis the country is faced with is COVID-19. He said while people are most acquainted with the pandemic in terms of loss of life, there is also a massive economic aspect that should be considered.

“The consequences weren’t just death and disease, they were also a loss of livelihoods,” El-Sayed said. “What you’re seeing here is unemployment in the United States, trending steadily downward since 2010. And then with a gigantic step upward in 2020, as businesses were forced to lock down, and the demand that we would have expected for goods and services (has) fallen because people fear what the consequences of going out might be in the context of a global pandemic.”

El-Sayed said the second pandemic is systemic racism, noting the recent protests in response to the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

“This moment, where we are stepping up against racism, acknowledges the fact that systemic racism has been an issue,” El-Sayed said. “How many deaths could we avert? How many lives could be saved if we were able to reduce the mortality rate among Black Americans so that it is just the same as it is among white Americans?”

According to El-Sayed, the third pandemic is one of economic insecurity.

“The number of places you can take your labor, if you are a laborer, has declined with time,” El-Sayed said. “Because of the ability of different organizations, different firms in any sector of the economy to collude on price, it has reduced the overall wages of the average American.”

El-Sayed noted that the three pandemics are not independent of one another. He said the connection between the pandemics, which allows them to reinforce one another, only exists because of the country’s broken health care system. The American health care system does not provide the security needed to prevent these crises, El-Sayed said.

“Think about it, what’s the operative word in insurance?” El-Sayed said. “Sure. We’re supposed to be sure that it’s there. When you’re not sure that your insurance is going to be there for you, think about what it does to your security, your insecurity. And then think about who suffers these the worst: people who are marginalized, people who are poor in our system.”  

El-Sayed said the current system lacks the proper incentives to prevent catastrophes.

“The entire industry is set up to care for you after you get sick, not necessarily there to keep you from getting sick in the first place,” El-Sayed said. “So we systematically underinvest in prevention and public health in our country because there is no incentive to do it.” 

To conclude his talk, El-Sayed argued that America was ill-prepared for the pandemic because the country did not have the necessary infrastructure in place to deal with it.

“Preparing for a pandemic is about the choices that you make before that pathogen hits, the choices that you make to invest in a competent public health infrastructure, the choices that you make to offer access to primary care so people don’t get sick and potentially spread a disease. We don’t have that in our country,” El-Sayed said.

During the Q&A portion, Mika LaVaque-Manty, LSA Honors Program director and event moderator, received questions from the audience members regarding the possibility for a different mindset after COVID-19.

“There are some questions about macro social forces in public health, and questions about how we might — as a country, as states, as societies — incentivize and focus on preventative care and public health, as opposed to the sort of tertiary care and curing illnesses after they have emerged,” LaVaque-Manty said. “And a related question on whether you think that the COVID-19 pandemic is going to change anything as we come out of this.”

El-Sayed said he believes there is potential for COVID-19 to change aspects of the country’s health care system, but it will take a lot of effort.

“Taking away power from the corporations that have stuck their hands into our health care system, and made it so that this was really about a money-making exercise for several industries and less about how we keep people healthy, is the problem,” El-Sayed said. “And if there’s going to be any reform, whether it’s Medicare for All, or a public option, it’s got to mean taking power away from these corporations.”  

In an interview with The Daily, Amytess Girgis, an LSA senior who worked with El-Sayed on his 2018 gubernatorial campaign, said she agrees with El-Sayed on what needs to be changed about America’s health care system.

“I’m in full agreement with Abdul that we can collectively push for not only Medicare for All, but also, in the short term, serious, serious programmatic reforms on the cost of prescription drugs, on the monopoly that the health care industry has on deciding how much people pays for life-saving medication,” Girgis said. “There are a lot of things we need to be doing to rectify the injustices that COVID has shed light on.”

Girgis noted El-Sayed’s understanding of the relationship between public health and body politics.

“Abdul was and is a phenomenal mentor to me and so many others, and he’s also just a visionary when it comes to demanding equity and justice for those who don’t have the same platform he does,” Girgis said.

Daily News Contributor Justine Ra can be reached at rjustine@umich.edu.


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