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Stopping the coronavirus requires health care access and paid sick leave. America's in trouble.

Mar 2, 2020 / News Item / NBC News — Michelle Chen

Now that the the COVID-19 virus is spreading rapidly around the world, the Trump administration is scrambling to calm the public's fears about catching it. While Trump's claims about the nation's preparedness are severely exaggerated, the preparedness of individual Americans is an even bigger unknown; millions of us are not even prepared for a bad cold, much less a global pandemic. The combination of a profit-driven health care insurance industry and an exploitative low-wage economy means that a sudden illness could cost you your job, and a public health crisis could leave countless people priced out of critical care.

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A global health threat requires a maximally inclusive medical infrastructure that can comprehensively manage risks across the population. But the U.S. health care system excludes millions of people by design and makes critical health care services prohibitively costly for many poor families. Whether or not COVIC-19 becomes a full-blown crisis in the U.S., the health care system itself is a crisis, fueled by corporate greed and pernicious inequality.

A major threat like the coronavirus would aggravate abysmal gaps in insurance coverage, which force people to routinely forgo essentials like a flu shot or blood pressure medication. According to surveys by the Kaiser Health Foundation, about 28 million nonelderly people had no health care coverage in 2018 — disproportionately people of color — and about 1 in 5 of them reported having avoided seeking needed care over the past year due to cost.

Even workers with employer-sponsored insurance face soaring premiums, often with deductibles exceeding $5,000 per household, despite the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Roughly 40 percent of them reported struggling to pay for health care — mostly by making sacrifices such as cutting back on food purchases, taking on an extra job or taking on debt. Some 2 in 3 bankruptcies nationwide are still linked to medical costs.

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As Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., pointed out last week, the tensions surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak highlight the need for a universal "Medicare for All" system, which would protect against major public-health threats by ensuring everyone could access the care that they needed, regardless of income, without being deterred by fear of out-of-pocket costs or surprise medical bills.

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The U.S. is virtually alone among affluent countries in failing to guarantee any form of paid sick leave, so many workers can't call in sick or stay home to tend to a sick child or elder without losing pay, if not their jobs. About 32 million workers nationwide do not have a single paid sick day — including 7 in 10 of the lowest-paid workers, and disproportionate numbers of Black and Latinx workers.

According to a 2010 survey by the Public Welfare Foundation, nearly a quarter of workers reported losing their job, or being threatened with job loss, for taking time off for a personal or family illness. Though some cities and states have passed paid sick leave policies, a lack of paid sick days is sadly commonplace in service professionslike restaurant work and day care, in which workers interact constantly with the public.

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