Slightly over a year after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic, vaccines from Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson have been granted emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended a pause in the use of Johnson and Johnson's single-dose vaccine after six women developed a rare blood-clotting disorder. As of Thursday, 198 million vaccine doses have been administered and 37.9% of the American population is already partially vaccinated.
A key aspect of the vaccine rollout’s success was its accessibility to the public as a result of funding from the federal government. According to the CDC, “The federal government is providing the vaccine free of charge to all people living in the United States, regardless of their immigration or health insurance status.” This begs the question: what if our whole healthcare system was single-payer?
The United States is the only large, rich country where private insurance dominates the healthcare industry. As Senator Bernie Sanders puts it, “The function of private health insurance is not to provide quality care to all, it is to make as much money as possible for the private insurance companies, working with the drug companies.” Sanders is the Senate sponsor of the “Medicare for All” legislation that would eliminate private insurance and create a national public healthcare system that covers more services.
Both liberals and conservatives tend to deride the idea of a single-payer healthcare system claiming that government-run bureaucracies end up with sluggish and inefficient performance. “For all those who asserted that a collective healthcare system open to all would lead to huge backlogs and inefficiency, why then has such a collective system for vaccine rollout proven to be incredibly efficient?” said Victor Hernandez, a senior psychology and philosophy major and co-chair of LMU’s Democratic Socialists of America chapter. “Such efficiency has led us to a stage where, already in April, vaccines will be available to all adults in the U.S., a situation few of us could likely imagine just a few months ago.”
Regardless of concerns over speed and efficiency, the fact remains that a single-payer healthcare system would relieve the financial burden from working class Americans, a burden mostly carried by marginalized communities and racial minorities. According to The Century Foundation, the average American family spends 11% of their income on medical expenses such as premiums, copays, prescriptions and surprise billing. For Black Americans, this number increases, making up 20% of their household incomes. Furthermore, there are 28.9 million non-elderly Americans who are not insured at all.
Universal healthcare would replace our current private health insurance with a public system that ensures that every American receives the medical care that they need. Ethan Persi, a junior electrical engineering major and another member of LMU’s Democratic Socialists of America chapter, explained, “Since the government has been giving the vaccine out for free, and it has since helped to reduce the amount of deaths and hospitalizations from Covid, they have proven that healthcare works best when given without a price.”
However, even though this system is a step in the right direction, the vaccine’s rollout is nevertheless emblematic of systemic injustices in American institutions. Despite Black workers being overrepresented in essential work during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the CDC, as of April 15, 64.7% of Americans who have received at least one dose of the vaccine were white, compared to Hispanic people who make up 11.3%, Black people who make up 8.5%, Asians who make up 5.3%, and American Indian/Alaskan Natives making up less than 1.1%. People reporting other or multiple races made up 8.7%.
Marginalized communities have also been impacted by the pause of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which has been administered to over seven million people so far, after six women developed a blood clotting disorder, resulting in one death. The single-dose vaccine was particularly convenient for communities that are harder to reach like rural residents and people who are unhoused.
Implementing a universal healthcare system may face similar problems involving systemic injustice, but removing the burden of medical debt and the tie between employment and access to healthcare would help to significantly curb racial injustice in the healthcare system. In Minnesota, for example, 44% of uninsured people are racial minorities although they make up just over 20% of the state's population. Universal healthcare would guarantee all Americans would have access to healthcare, regardless of employment status or income.
Although there is a lack of support for Medicare for All in Congress, 69% of all American voters support it. Hopefully, our elected officials will learn a lesson from the COVID-19 vaccine distribution, listen to their constituents and make the United States the final industrialized country on Earth to guarantee its citizens a right to live.