Health holds priority over economy

Robert Reich

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

Steve Chiotakis: The Centers for Disease Control says there are at least five dozen cases of swine flu across the United States [and at least one confirmed death in this country]. But south of the border in Mexico, that number is creeping toward 160. And as worldwide cases multiplied this week, stocks took a dive. Shares of airlines plummeted. Pork producers saw a drop in sales. Economists worry about the outbreak's added drag to the fallout. But on this one, Marketplace commentator Robert Reich says we should all forget the business angle.


Robert Reich: Many are deeply worried about what a swine flu pandemic could do to the already weakened U.S. economy. I understand their worry, but it strikes me as misplaced. The real worry is that lots of people could get sick and many could die.

Thinking about a pandemic as an economic crisis assumes there's something called an "economy" whose health can be separated from the well-being of real people. It's like viewing the financial meltdown as a crisis for Wall Street measured in how low the Dow sinks, when millions of people are losing their jobs, their savings, and their homes.

In the end, an economy is nothing but people. If vast numbers of people are doing well, the economy should be judged a success. If many people are hurting, the economy is failing. Health is a big factor.

The budget resolution that just emerged from a House-Senate conference fast-tracks universal health insurance, which means the upcoming bill won't be subject to a possible filibuster. This maneuver upsets those who believe the country cannot afford universal health insurance. Even though we now have the most costly, inefficient, and inequitable system of health care in the world, opponents of reform believe it will harm the economy.

But if you think of the American economy as 300 million people, 44 million of whom are not insured and many others who can barely hold on to the insurance they have, the question is not whether the economy can afford universal health insurance, but whether we Americans can continue to bear the cost of not having it.

If in the months ahead we're unfortunate enough to find ourselves in the midst of a dangerous pandemic, I doubt our main concern will be its effect on the Dow or the GDP. We'll concern ourselves with how to protect those who are most vulnerable to it, and how to care for those who have contracted the disease. We'd do well to focus on these questions right now, and stay focused on how to make and keep Americans healthy.

Chiotakis: Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich teaches public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

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