If we want everybody to stay home during a coronavirus crisis, we need deep change to make that possible

As we pursue an end to the COVID-19 crisis, we can’t avoid a national conversation about why we were so woefully unprepared for it.

SHARE If we want everybody to stay home during a coronavirus crisis, we need deep change to make that possible

Frustrated passengers at O’Hare Airport over the weekend complained of being forced to wait in line for as long as seven hours because of federal screening for the coronavirus.

Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty Images

The COVID-19 crisis makes it impossible to ignore what has always been true:

Our collective health and safety as a city and a society depends on the health and safety of the most vulnerable among us. 

As a result of rampant inequality and a nearly non-existent safety net, the United States appears to be on the brink of an especially devastating virus outbreak. Thus far, the primary response has been to urge individuals to change their behavior, in ways that are often impossible for working-class people in Chicago and nationwide.

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Stay home if you’re sick, though Chicago requires that companies provide employees with just five paid sick days, while the virus can incubate for up to 14 days. Stock up on supplies, though nearly 40 percent of all Americans don’t have enough in the bank to cover a $400 emergency. Practice social distancing, though an estimated 86,000 Chicagoans are living on the streets, in crowded shelters or doubled-up with relatives. 

We applaud Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s decisions this week to close schools, bars and eat-in dining at restaurants. But unless we take action to guarantee healthcare, housing and income security for everybody, the virus is likely to continue to spread as it has, further stressing our already gutted public health system.

If we want everyone to stay home, we need universal social benefits that leave no one out. 

Working with progressive colleagues, we are backing the “Recovery for All” agenda authored by United Working Families, the Chicago Teachers Union and other community organizations. Beyond the steps the governor already is taking to expand Medicaid and unemployment insurance, we favor 15 days of paid emergency leave, emergency housing for all people who are unable to self-quarantine, an end to Immigration and Customs Enforcement check-ins, and weekly payments of at least $750 for all workers and families impacted by coronavirus. 

Unions, including the CTU, called last week for a moratorium on evictions and home utility shut-offs, and we already are seeing how quickly measures that may sound radical become common-sense in this new reality.

On Friday, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart announced a 30-day halt to all evictions, noting that a man who was about to be removed from his home had shown symptoms of the virus. If we acknowledge the public health calamity that eviction represents, it’s a short step to reckoning with the fact that the number of people living on our streets, in shelters, in prisons and in immigrant detention centers is dangerous and cruel — and always has been. 

As we pursue stop-gap solutions to the COVID-19 crisis, we can’t avoid a national conversation about why we were — and remain — so woefully unprepared for it. The larger structural problems include for-profit healthcare, a society riven by inequality and racism, and an economic system that demands that people continue to report for work every day, even when public safety requires the exact opposite. 

It’s especially surreal that the coronavirus outbreak is intensifying in Illinois just as we prepare to vote on Tuesday. Unlike those who have urged that Sen. Bernie Sanders cede the Democratic nomination to Joe Biden, we believe he needs to stay in the race to continue championing the message that progressive measures such as Medicare for All, housing for all and a Green New Deal are critical to our collective survival. 

Last Thursday, Sanders urged us to “remember that we are in this together.” That’s a much-needed message as we watch price-gougers hoard hand sanitizer, investors scoop up pharma stocks in anticipation of a windfall, and corporations continue to deny their employees sick time.

As democratic socialists, solidarity is one of our bedrock principles. In the days ahead, we will be doing everything we can to foster it in our communities and support efforts to care for our neighbors during this frightening time. But we also need deep change that makes solidarity the organizing principle of our society.

Not only is this the right thing to do, it’s the only way out of the crisis. 

Rossana Rodriguez is alderman of Chicago’s 33 ward; Carlos Ramirez-Rosa is alderman of the 35th Ward; Byron Sigcho Lopez is alderman of the 25th Ward, Daniel La Spata is alderman of the 1st Ward; and Jeanette Taylor is alderman of the 20th Ward.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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