The Slatest

 Americans Were Confident in the Health Care System’s Ability to Handle a Pandemic—Until a Pandemic Happened

Past and present polling from Pew Research captures the decline of faith.

Beds are lined up in a tent as volunteers from the International Christian relief organization Samaritans Purse set up an Emergency Field Hospital for patients suffering from the coronavirus in March 2020.
Beds are lined up in a tent as volunteers from the International Christian relief organization Samaritans Purse set up an Emergency Field Hospital for patients suffering from the coronavirus in March 2020. BRYAN R. SMITH/Getty Images

In October 2014, a poll from Pew research found that about 61 percent of Americans were confident that the U.S. hospitals could “diagnose and isolate possible cases of Ebola.” The survey was conducted between October 16-19, a few weeks after the first travel-associated case of Ebola was confirmed in the U.S. and around eight days after the man died. Two health care workers who cared for him tested positive for Ebola as well, and recovered. On October 24, an aid worker who volunteered in Guinea was confirmed to have the virus. They recovered, too. Outside of those four cases, seven other people were treated in the States after they contracted the virus during trips to West Africa. One died and most of them were health care workers.

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Ebola was not felt in the U.S. like it was in West Africa. It was a possible but distant threat, much like the coronavirus was perceived stateside in the days before the pandemic was officially declared as such. And in March 2020, just before the pandemic ramped up, a Pew survey found that 71 percent of adults felt as though the health care system in their area could adequately handle those who fell severely ill after contracting the coronavirus. The same was said by 68 percent of participants about health care institutions across the country.

This is no longer the case.

New polling data from Pew shows that only 55 percent of Americans believe the health care system could handle another pandemic, which is the lowest level of belief among 17 countries surveyed. This drop is likely due to the pandemic laying bare the astounding inequities present in America’s institutions. Every opportunity to contain the virus was blown by the previous presidential administration, and the extent to which public health is underfunded in America became clear. COVID-19 infections overwhelmed already strained hospitals, which left already exhausted health care employees to worry about whether they had to ration out care. Inadequate testing was prevalent during the course of the crisis and mostly catered to people who drove. Efficient, widespread contract tracing? Forget about it.

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Stark divides between who could and couldn’t afford to work from home led to reductions in public transit services, which, in turn, hurt the working poor who make up the “essential” workforce. When the vaccine rolled out, digital signups disparately excluded the eldery and those without internet access—two groups who needed vaccines the most. Food delivery service, which became a staple during the bulk of the pandemic, was less available to anyone who needed to use EBT or WIC benefits.

That’s just a glimpse of the failures, just as COVID-19 is a snapshot of pandemics to come. The World Health Organization has listed 10 worrisome diseases for which there is no, or limited, medical intervention available—including Disease X, which represents the knowledge that somewhere there’s a pathogen that has not yet been identified as a grave threat to human life.

Before 2020, those potential pandemics may have seemed like future challenges for the U.S. public health system to meet. Now they seem more like future tests.

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