If history is any guide, the way America chooses to battle the COVID-19 pandemic and respond to the economic crash will shape our country for decades to come. In the last century, the New Deal policies that pulled us out of the Great Depression also built a strong middle class and paved the way for decades of broadly shared prosperity. As of early May, the pandemic is getting worse, not better. Now is the time to ask not just how to get out of this hole but also what kind of country we want to have on the other side.
With this in mind, the Tennessee Valley Progressive Alliance offers seven overarching policy priorities to help navigate the coronavirus crisis and to build back better and stronger. Our goal should be to emerge from the crisis with a country that is more resilient, more equal, and more sustainable than before.
Here are 7 major priorities for the COVID-19 fight and beyond.
- Health insurance for everyone. In Alabama, the most urgent need is for state leaders to expand Medicaid, as most other states have already done. This will insure over 300,000 more Alabamians, help save struggling rural hospitals, and boost the state economy. At the federal level, Congress should move to expand Medicare to cover everyone. When people are stably insured, they’re free to pursue better jobs or start a business. And they’re free from worrying about financial ruin from getting sick or hurt.
- Workers are essential and deserve essential pay and protection. That means a $15 minimum wage, a union, hazard pay, personal protective equipment (PPE), and paid sick leave. Want to establish economic security for families and individuals? Focus on their jobs.
- Voting must be safe and simple for all. Every eligible adult should be automatically registered to vote. Every registered voter should receive a ballot in the mail. Election officials from each county and Secretary of State John Merrill need to move quickly now to be ready for November. If Alabama needs federal help to make this happen, state leaders should ask for it.
- People-first stimulus & recovery. Stimulus payments for individuals and families should be robust and monthly for the duration of the crisis. No more corporate giveaways masquerading as recovery. No more oversight-free corporate slush funds. The government should forgive student debt. And from now on, public colleges and universities should be free. These last two alone will significantly ease financial burdens on working families.
- No “disaster capitalism”. The government must not use the crisis to allow a smash-and-grab by big corporations and Wall Street titans. No selling off of our national treasures, like national parks or the US Postal Service. Hands off social safety net programs and earned benefits like Social Security. No rollbacks of the environmental, worker, and consumer protections.
- The easing of stay-at-home orders and social distancing must be based on public health expertise, not politics. Arbitrary “re-open” dates are meaningless. We need massively increased testing, contact tracing, and federal coordination of state efforts. Politicians should focus on enabling public health experts and health workers to do their jobs and on getting out of their way.
- Recognize that the climate crisis is the next public health and economic emergency. The parallels between the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis should be obvious. Our response to COVID-19 must jumpstart our response to the climate crisis. We should take advantage of the drastic reduction of fossil fuel emissions to build back better and cleaner. The public investments that put people back to work should also transform our economy for the long term with sustainability in mind.
Here in the Tennessee Valley, all of this may seem like wishful thinking. Leaders at all levels of government—local, state, and federal—are depressingly opposed to these priorities. In fact, most of them are moving in the opposite direction.
But times like these demonstrate that the old ways are broken. The biggest changes always come from the bottom up, not the top down. Leaders can be replaced. Every so often, a generation surprises itself at what is, in fact, possible. In the middle of this emergency, now is the time to chart the course. If we set the right priorities in the depths of this crisis, we can be a stronger nation in the decades ahead.
David Odom is president of Tennessee Valley Progressive Alliance, a grassroots independent activist organization in the Greater Huntsville area.