The coronavirus pandemic, also known as COVID-19, was the focal point of discussion during the latest Democratic presidential debate on Sunday, this time just between former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Both candidates criticized the slow response from the U.S. government, and the lack of available testing kits, but Sanders made it a point to emphasize the flaws in the American health care system that he contends are making the crisis even worse.
“The dysfunctionality of the current health care system is obviously apparent,” Sanders said. “Clearly we are not prepared, and Trump only exacerbates the crisis.”
The Vermont senator criticized Trump for “undermining” the doctors and scientists trying to inform the public of how to best prepare for the coronavirus.
Trump has made several inaccurate claims about the coronavirus, and has directly contradicted public health officials on several occasions. While touring the CDC headquarters in Atlanta, he said: “Anybody that needs a test can have a test.” However, access to coronavirus tests is still extremely limited, an issue that’s borne heavy criticism.
He also asserted that the completion of the border “wall” along the U.S.-Mexico border would help protect Americans against coronavirus, despite the fact that CDC director Robert Redfield said a wall would not be effective.
A lack of doctors
Sanders, a major proponent of a single-payer health care system, stressed that the current pandemic and response from the government underscored the problems with the American health care system.
A major problem that’s arisen in other countries, and what many are warning could happen in the U.S. soon enough, is that there aren’t enough health care workers or hospital beds to treat the number of patients infected with the virus.
The U.S. number of physicians per 1,000 people is just 2.6, according to Deutsche Global Bank Research, World Development Indicators, and Haver Analytics. That ranks far behind other leading countries, like Sweden (5.4), Germany (4.2), Italy (4.1), and U.K. (2.8).
“When we spend twice as much per capita on health care as any other nation, one might expect that we’d have enough doctors all over this country,” Sanders said. “One might expect that we’d have affordable prescription drugs. One might expect that we are preparing effectively for a pandemic, that we were ready with ventilators, with the ICUs, with the test kits that we need. We are not.”
‘It has nothing to do with Medicare for all’
Sanders said that the lack of preparation was a reason why there should be Medicare for all, which has been one of the central plans of his campaign and would eliminate private health insurance in favor of a single-payer government system.
“Bottom line here is in terms of Medicare for all … one of the reasons we are unprepared and have been unprepared is we don’t have a system,” he said. “We’ve got thousands of private insurance plans. That is not a system that’s prepared to provide health care to all people.”
However, Biden disagreed with his opponent, stating that it “would not solve the problem at all.”
“With all due respect to Medicare for all, you have a single-payer system in Italy,” he said. “It doesn’t work there. It has nothing to do with Medicare for all.”
In Italy, where there is universal health care, the number of patients is overwhelming the country’s hospitals. However, the coronavirus tests, ER visits, and ICU are all free.
According to The New York Times, Romano Prodi, the former prime minister of Italy and president of the European Union commission, said that “coronavirus is already also an American problem” and that because of the difference between the U.S. health care system and Europe’s, “it may be more serious than the European one.”
Biden noted that because the coronavirus pandemic is a public health crisis, people don’t have to worry about paying to be tested for the virus.
“Everything that you need in terms of dealing with this crisis would be free,” he said. “It is paid for by the taxpayers generally. Generally. It has nothing to do with Bernie’s Medicare for all.”
Sanders stood by his argument, however, stating that through Medicare for all, people wouldn’t have to worry about paying for testing, or for treatment. (In the U.S., 1 in 3 U.S. families have skipped medical care due to costs, according to a survey of 2,596 adults out this month from Bankrate.)
“In a good year without the epidemic, we’re losing up to 60,000 people who die every year because they don’t get to a doctor on time,” Sanders said. “Clearly, this crisis is making a bad situation worse.”