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Public Health, Public Policy & Personal Responsibility: Coronavirus and the Common Good

March 4, 2020

CoronavirusPublic health officials first encountered COVID-19, popularly called the coronavirus, in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. Thus far, the virus has infected over 89,000 people, killing more than 3,000.1 In the United States, there have been more than 100 cases in 15 states; at least six people have died, all of them in Washington state.2 The Trump administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the World Health Organization insist that the threat of the coronavirus is still manageable, all the while taking precautions to attempt to contain the outbreak.

In the United States, Congress is debating how much money to allocate in support of public health officials, doctors, and local and state governments working to address the spreading virus.3

WATCH: This five-minute video from the Washington Post offers a good overview of the outbreak, the official responses, and symptoms

Coverage of the coronavirus has highlighted some issues with equality and equity in U.S. health care. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar suggested last week that the price for any COVID-19 vaccine would likely be set by the company or companies that produce the vaccine, meaning that a vaccine may not be affordable for everyone.4 This angered many progressives and community advocates, and raised questions about whether or not the government should subsidize vaccines.5 Members of Congress are fighting over how best to address this issue.6

Covid-19 The outbreak has also raised another important equity issue: the ability to take time off work. It is recommended that people who are feeling sick or are worried that they may have been exposed to the coronavirus stay home from work or school and avoid public spaces.7 However, doing so is not always possible for hourly employees in the service industry, such as restaurant and retail workers.8 This has called attention to issues such as paid time off9 and employment security.10

WATCH: Channel 4 News on “Coronavirus: UK Low-Paid Hospital Cleaners Fear Taking Sick Days”

While some of these public health and public policy challenges are short-term, the coronavirus is also highlighting underlying structural problems. In the light of the presidential campaign, issues involving equity, health care, and workers’ rights have taken on new urgency.

Discussion Questions

  1. What have you heard about the coronavirus from the news? Social media? Friends and family?
  2. Do you live in a community that is currently impacted by the outbreak? How are local officials responding? How has your school life changed?
  3. Do you think the government should provide a vaccine to all Americans if/when it becomes available?
  4. Should the government provide special assistance to low-income workers and others who cannot afford to take time away from their jobs?
  5. Does this outbreak shape the way you think about any other policy issues, such as trade or health care?



[1] The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/27/what-is-covid-19
[2] CBS News: https://www.cbsnews.com/live-updates/coronavirus-outbreak-death-toll-us-infections-latest-news-updates-2020-03-03/
[3] NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/03/02/810117760/lessons-from-u-s-hospitals-caring-for-covid-19-patients
[4] Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/joshuacohen/2020/03/01/addressing-the-issue-of-coronavirus-vaccine-affordability/#30442555c789
[5] Common Dreams: https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/02/27/outrage-hhs-chief-azar-refuses-vow-coronavirus-vaccine-will-be-affordable-all-not
[6] The Hill: https://thehill.com/homenews/senate/485800-vaccine-costs-emerge-as-roadblock-to-coronavirus-funding-deal
[7] CNN: https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/03/success/coronavirus-remote-work/index.html
[8] New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/01/upshot/coronavirus-sick-days-service-workers.html
[9] MarketWatch: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/its-a-very-unfortunate-conundrum-as-coronavirus-spreads-the-cdc-urges-sick-workers-to-stay-home-but-what-if-you-dont-get-paid-sick-leave-2020-03-02
[10] Vox: https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/2/27/21155901/coronavirus-in-us-spread-paid-sick-leave




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