Nobel laureate Angus Deaton is warning that the coronavirus pandemic will likely exacerbate inequality and predicting the public health crisis could be the turning point for overhauling America’s for-profit healthcare system.
In an interview with Agence France-Presse published Tuesday, Deaton—who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2015 for his work on poverty—highlighted the higher mortality rates from Covid-19 experienced by African-Americans and said workers with less formal education are “essential workers [who] risk their lives with Covid.”
“Or if they are in non-essential things, they might lose their jobs,” he added.
Deaton drew attention to the millions of recently unemployed Americans who’ve joined the ranks of the nation’s uninsured because their healthcare coverage was tied to their employer. People who’ve recovered from Covid-19 and families of those who’ve died from the illness may face “huge medical bills,” he said, noting that even those with healthcare coverage may face steep bills “because often insurance has huge deductibles.”
Healthcare is the U.S. “a major source of inequality,” said Deaton, and pointed to various other nations’ systems as having better models.
“Anything is better than pretending that the market can deliver healthcare—because it can’t,” Deaton told AFP. “All you get is this enormous conspiracy to sort of transfer money from ordinary people to much better-off people.”
The interview was released a day after Deaton addressed similar issues in a joint op-ed, writing that the coronavirus “promises to widen the country’s already vast inequalities in health and income.”
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In the opinion piece, Deaton and Anne Case—an American economist and co-author with Deaton of Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism—write that while a portion of the U.S. population “can sit back and watch the stock market propel the value of their retirement funds ever higher” as the pandemic rages, “the two-thirds of workers who lack a four-year college degree are either nonessential, and thus risk losing their earnings, or essential, and thus at risk of infection.”
“Whereas college graduates have largely been able to safeguard both their health and their wealth, less-educated workers must risk one or the other,” they wrote.
“America’s costly healthcare system will continue to compound the pandemic’s effects,” Deaton and Case said, adding that “some of the uninsured may not have sought” medical treatment for Covid-19.
Deaton and Case also warned that “the pandemic is fueling further industry consolidation by favoring already dominant e-commerce giants at the expense of struggling brick-and-mortar firms.”
As to whether the public health crisis or the current national uprising over systemic racism could prove to be catalysts for true change in the U.S., Deaton and Case said there’s no guarantee.
“True, public anger over police violence or outrageously expensive healthcare could create a structural break,” they wrote. “If that happens, we might see a better society. Or, we might not. It is not always a phoenix that rises from the ashes.”
Deaton’s remarks come a month after an analysis from Americans for Tax Fairness and the Institute for Policy Studies revealed that the nation’s billionaires saw their combined net worth surge by $434 billion between March 18 and May 19 as ordinary Americans were hit by the economic toll of the pandemic.