Neoliberalism and Public Health is a Disaster

COVID-19 Rebuild New Orleans

New Orleans     The delta variant of the coronavirus is earthshaking at this point.  The Jazz Festival in New Orleans, which rivals Mardi Gras as a cultural and economic event in the city, was canceled for the second straight year.  Businesses, artists, and the city itself are reeling.  Our Fair Grinds Coffeehouse is only blocks away, and we’re feeling the aftershock acutely.

Looking past the mask on our own noses, there is a terrible pattern emerging in the pandemic.  Neoliberalism has taken over public health.  Many public authorities are facing huge resistance to simple instructions requiring masks and almost outright rebellion from some over policies making vaccines mandatory in the United States.  Why do I call part of this phenomenon a rising surge of neoliberalism? Simply, because it expresses a resistance to public authority’s role in the marketplace, even in a public health crisis, and defaults to private actors or nothing at all.

Part of the problematic confrontation can be found in the increasing standoffs between governors implementing ostrich-like heads-in-the-sand pandemic policies in order to increase the growing divide are encouraging between rural areas and urban centers. The governor of Arkansas caught in a crisis, partly of his own making and miscalculation, is trying to reverse, unsuccessfully so far, a bill banning mask mandates in the state, which he signed gladly, thinking the pandemic was exhausted.  Norwegian Cruise Lines had to go to court to get a restraining order in Florida against a directive that they could not require vaccinations for their customers, so they could sail.  The Dallas Independent School District, contravening an executive order from the governor of Texas, is requiring masks of students, staff, and visitors on any Dallas public school campus in a standoff.   Florida, Arkansas, and Texas are not alone.  These are just examples.

The federal government has acted, establishing a mandate for its workers and contractors.  The military has announced that it is only waiting for the FDA to give full approval, and the Pentagon indicated that as September comes along if that hasn’t happened, it will act anyway.  The House of Representatives has a mask and vaccine mandate, but not the US Senate.

These are almost exceptions.  Underlying these contradictory actions by the federal government compared to many of the states is the hope that the private sector will lead.  United Airlines did so.  Amazon, Walmart, and Mcdonald’s did so, sort of, and in each case hedging their bets with masks and vaccines for some, not all.  Some tech-mandated as well.  Genesis, the big nursing home operator, did the obvious and set a date for all on board to be vaccinated.  Tyson says it is going in this direction.  More than 600, at last count, colleges and universities are requiring vaccines or regular proof via testing, but many are facing blowback.  One tiny school in Louisiana briefly faced a lawsuit from the state’s blindly ambitious attorney general.

President Biden has called on the private sector to lead.  Neoliberalism is by definition a hands-off affair for the market, guided by their supposed self-interest.  To expect them to lead on public health issues rather than profit is to believe that cats can be herded and that fairy godmothers and Santa Claus will save us from ourselves and our inability to act collectively for the public good.  There’s a reason we distinguish between the public good and private gain.  The delta variant is teaching yet another lesson in this pandemic, and it’s not ending well for any us when we are led by too many slow learners.