Our country, and the world in general, has been turned upside down by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Healthcare workers, retail workers (at least anyone working for a retailer who sells groceries) and workers for a few other sectors deemed essential are busy. However, the social distancing required to fight the pandemic has thrown millions out of work. Some are expecting Great Depression-type unemployment within weeks.
The crises also have given us plenty of information on how flawed our view of security has been. For some time, we’ve been content to spend lots of money on military hardware of all sorts – conventional and nuclear – and these items are useless in the fight against Covid-19. What our country needs is a more robust public health service to fight future pandemics. The Army has constructed a field hospital in New York City and the Navy hospital ship, the U.S.S. Comfort, is in the NYC area to admit non-Covid-19 patients. We have no choice at this time but to use the military to fight this pandemic, but if we had a more robust public health infrastructure then we could manage similar crises without the intervention of the military.
Our country’s public health service, the United States Public Health Service, is under the Department of Health and Human Services. The USPHS has a commissioned corps called the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. Those in the service wear uniforms identical to the United States Navy or Coast Guard except that the Corps’ uniforms bear a different insignia. The Corps’ primary mission is the protection, promotion and advancement of the health and safety of the general public. The most well-known person in the public health service is the Surgeon General who always wears the Corps’ uniform in front of the media.
Some in the Pentagon questioned the use of military personnel in a pandemic that impacted primarily the civilian community. A stronger and larger public health service would be capable of building field hospitals in a pandemic, assisting other hospitals, and coordinating and disseminating scientific information relevant to the public at large. Currently, the USPHS has just commissioned officers while the military has warrant officers and enlisted personnel. A larger service would employ nurses of all types (registered and licensed practical nurses) as well as nurses’ aides and administrative workers. Aides, L.P.N.’s and administrative workers would constitute the enlisted corps.
Another portion of a revamped USPHS would include enlisted personnel who would deliver food and medicine in pandemic times and help unemployed workers collect benefits like unemployment insurance, public assistance and Medicaid. They would provide help to agencies that administer those programs, as this it is a tough task in pandemic times. This enlarged service would work with public health services of other countries, as threats like Covid-19 have no boundaries.
One can imagine the youth of America growing up thinking they wanted to secure the health of our country by being a part of the USPHS. Recruiters would be placed in our high school and colleges. The funding for a bigger health service would come from a downsizing of our currently military budget, as our bloated military budget does us no good when our threats are climate change and pandemics. Like the pandemic threat, climate change will require the cooperation of nation-states. A smart foreign policy requires working with other nation-states to establish a world governed by international law. Only a peaceful world will be able to cooperate to establish a livable future for future generations all over the world.
A larger USPHS would be a key piece of the puzzle in constructing a more social-democratic America in the aftermath of the Great Recession and the Covid-19 crises. A grassroots movement that starts in the citizenry can take this idea from this story to a reality.
Jason Sibert is the Executive Director of the Peace Economy Project in St. Louis.