A stethoscope tied around a pile of cash, with a pill bottle nearby. The pill bottle has cash and pills inside.

We Haven’t ‘Learned the Lessons of COVID’ Until We Remake the Political Economy of Health

By Beatrice Adler-Bolton and Artie Vierkant

Over the course of the pandemic it has been popular to claim that we have “learned lessons from COVID,” as though this plague has spurred a revolution in how we treat illness, debility, and death under capitalism.

Management consulting firm McKinsey, for example, writes that COVID has taught us that “infectious diseases are a whole-of-society issue.” A Yale Medicine bulletin tells us that we successfully learned “everyone is not treated equally, especially in a pandemic.” These bromides reflect the Biden administration’s evaluation of its own efforts; a recent White House report professes to have “successfully put equity at the center of a public health response for the first time in the nation’s history.”

We have learned nothing from COVID. The ongoing death, debility, disability, and immiseration of the pandemic are testament only to a failed political economy that pretends at magnanimity.

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NEW YORK, NY - MAY 24, 2020: New York Times newspaper with "U.S. Deaths Near 100,000, An Incalculable Loss" front-page article delivered to front door in Manhattan.

Pandemic Nihilism, Social Murder, and the Banality of Evil

­­By Nate Holdren

Every day in the pandemic, many people’s lives end, and others are made irrevocably worse.[1]

These daily losses matter inestimably at a human level, yet they do not matter in any meaningful way at all to the public and private institutions that govern our lives. Our suffering is inconsequential to the machinery of power and to those who compose and operate that machinery. This has been the case all along, but in this phase of the pandemic, our suffering has been nihilistically recast as not just inconsequential, but inevitable by the administration and the voices it has cultivated as its proxies. Consider, for example, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre’s remarks during President Biden’s July 2022 COVID-19 infection: “As we have said, almost everyone is going to get COVID.”

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cells with the doors closed at a historic Idaho prison.

The Pandemic Prison

By Dan Berger

The pandemic prison has utilized several of the worst features of incarceration as a foundational part of how the institution governs “public health” for its captives. And because prisons are never as removed from society as proponents like to think, these protocols redound far beyond the prison system itself.

The scale of COVID-19 in jails, prisons, and detention centers was expected. These institutions are defined by close quarters, poor health care, and, at least initially, little or no personal protective equipment. From the earliest days of the pandemic, anyone paying attention to jails, prisons, and detention centers knew that they would be vectors of community spread.

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Medical Hospital: Neurologist and Neurosurgeon Talk, Use Computer, Analyse Patient MRI Scan, Diagnose Brain. Brain Surgery Health Clinic Lab: Two Professional Physicians Look at CT Scan. Close-up.

Creating Brain-Forward Policies Amid a ‘Mass Deterioration Event’

By Emily R.D. Murphy

COVID-19 will be with us — in our society and in our brains — for the foreseeable future. Especially as death and severe illness rates have dropped since the introduction of vaccines and therapeutics, widespread and potentially lasting brain effects of COVID have become a significant source of discussion, fear, and even pernicious rumors about the privileged deliberately seeking competitive economic advantages by avoiding COVID (by continuing to work from home and use other peoples’ labor to avoid exposures) and its consequent brain damage.

This symposium contribution focuses specifically on COVID’s lasting effects in our brains, about which much is still unknown. It is critical to focus on this — notwithstanding the uncertainty about what happens, to how many, and for how long — for two reasons. First, brain problems (and mental health) are largely invisible and thus overlooked and deprioritized. And second, our current disability laws and policies that might be thought to deal with the problem are not up to the looming task. Instead, we should affirmatively consider what brain-forward policies and governance could look like, building on lessons from past pandemics and towards a future of more universal support and structural accommodation of diminishment as well as disability.

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2020 San Pedro California April 30: Federal Correctional Institution Terminal Island prison. Half the inmates there were infected with coronavirus.

Carceral Health Care Is Designed to Fail

By Andrea C. Armstrong

COVID-19 is not the first pandemic within prisons. Modern history is littered with examples of disease outbreaks in carceral spaces, including tuberculosis, influenza, and MRSA. Like these earlier carceral pandemics, the over 620,000 COVID-19 infections and 3,100 related deaths among incarcerated individuals to date simply expose how U.S. health law and policy fails to protect people in custody.

Only incarcerated people have a constitutional right to healthcare in the United States. That right, however, is rendered toothless when supplied through a punitive system that lacks meaningful standards and robust oversight.

Here is what we know — despite the secrecy that shields penal institutions — about carceral health care.

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Bill of Health - A worker gives directions as motorists wait in lines to get the coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine in a parking lot at Dodger Stadium, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, in Los Angeles, covid vaccine distribution

Countercyclical Aid Is Not Enough to Fix the Broken US Approach to Public Health Financing

By Philip Rocco

In the last month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s failed responses to COVID-19, ranging from “testing to data to communications,” have prompted a call to reorganize the agency.

Yet restructuring the CDC will have little effect on pandemic preparedness if the decentralized American approach to health finance remains in place. This structure was already stripped bare by decades of state and local austerity even before the first cases of COVID-19 were identified, and has been further worn down since 2020.

If the pandemic has taught us anything about public policy, it is that the model of countercyclical federal aid — which expands at the onset of an economic crisis but abates as that crisis is resolved — is fundamentally inadequate when applied to the realm of public health.

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The White House, Washington, DC.

The Years of Magical Thinking: Pandemic Necrosecurity Under Trump and Biden

By Martha Lincoln

From spring 2020 through the present day, Americans have endured levels of sickness and death that are outliers among not only wealthy democracies, but around the world. No other country has recorded as many total COVID-19 casualties as the United States — indeed, no other country comes close.

This situation is not happenstance. From early moments in 2020, the concept of a right to health — and indeed, even a right to life — has been discounted in American policy, discourse, and practice. Quite mainstream and influential individuals and institutions — physicians, economists, and think tanks — have urged leaders to shed public health protections — particularly masking — and “move away” from the pandemic. Over the past two years in the United States, leaders in both political parties have capitulated to — if not embraced — the doxa that a certain amount of death and suffering is inevitable in our efforts to overcome (or “live with”) the pandemic. In a piece written during the first months of COVID under Trump, I called this dangerous yet influential outlook necrosecurity: “the cultural idea that mass death among less grievable subjects plays an essential role in maintaining social welfare and public order.”

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Washington DC 09 20 2021. More than 600,000 white flags honor lives lost to COVID, on the National Mall. The art installation " In America: Remember" was created by Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg.

Introduction to the Symposium: Health Law and Policy in an Era of Mass Suffering

By Chloe Reichel and Benjamin A. Barsky

Last spring, the United States crossed the bleak and preventable 1,000,000-death mark for lives lost during the COVID-19 pandemic. In this symposium, our hope is to acknowledge — and mourn — this current era of mass suffering and death.

In particular, we want to reckon with the role of health law and policy in shaping, and at times catalyzing, the impact that the pandemic has had on our loved ones and communities.

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Georgia, Atlanta USA March 6, 2020.

For Whom Does the CDC Think it Works?

By Jennifer S. Bard

As weekly deaths from COVID in the U.S. soar into thousands, monkeypox continues to spread, and New York reports the country’s first case of paralytic polio since 1979, it is fair to question the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s effectiveness and ability to achieve its mission to “to protect America from health, safety and security threats” and its pledge to “base all public health decisions on the highest quality scientific data that is derived openly and objectively” and “place the benefits to society above the benefits to our institution.”

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