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Opinion Columns

Opinion: Our uneasy commitment to federalism is killing us

News outlets reported last week that New York, California and even Colorado may be reaching a plateau, where the number of new cases of COVID-19 and resulting fatalities may not dramatically increase and may even begin to decrease soon.

It’s due in large part to this weirdly hard work we’re doing — staying home, wearing masks, working, parenting and caring for elders in ways we never have before. 

These place-specific victories are also possible because of those who are still working outside their homes, doing their jobs in impossible and traumatizing circumstances, risking their lives because others need them to. 

Jennifer C. Greenfield

But in too many places across the country, these measures are not being implemented. As a result, the worst of this pandemic may yet be ahead in the U.S., and even those places that seem to have achieved plateaus may see new spikes in COVID-19 cases in the months to come. 

Across the U.S. today, we hold out hope that this fear is unfounded, but our hope is tempered by nagging doubt in our elected leaders, our science and our instincts. 

This pandemic has laid bare the costs of leaving unanswered some key questions about our values and beliefs about government, science and our obligations to one another in a time of crisis.

The U.S. faces unique challenges in addressing this pandemic. The crisis has highlighted what many already suspected: we were only ever an ephemerally “United” States of America, and this crisis and the months to come will truly put our unity to the test.

Although our founding documents seemed to institutionalize a set of understandings among the states, they have always been subject to interpretation.

We never fully agreed on what role a central (federal) government should have and how its power should be balanced against the power of state and local governments.

We never fully outlined the extent to which private markets and the right to individual wealth should be balanced against the common good, and now disagreement on these topics might, quite literally, kill us and those we love. 

The U.S. government was formed as a response to the dangers of a heavy-handed monarchy, and although the Founders incorporated checks and balances to protect against autocracy, they didn’t envision (or at least didn’t protect against) a decades-long effort to subvert the public good in favor of private profits, even at the cost of human lives. 

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Our federal government should, at a minimum, act on behalf of the public interest. It should prioritize the wellbeing of those who are most vulnerable to harm. It should serve as a collective balance of power against those who already hold power because of privilege, wits and good luck. And it should, in moments of crisis like this, exert that power to focus the deep resources of this nation like a laser to solve the multifaceted challenges we face. 

Even in its most minimal form, our federal government should be poised to step up at times like this.

We can house the unhoused and feed the hungry. Literally. We can do this. We can heal the sick and comfort those who cannot be healed. We can support those who face a loss of income in this moment of crisis and ensure that when the jobs return they can return to them.

We can care for small business owners AND their workers. We can rally the corporations to work together to meet critical needs at a fair price and we can coordinate delivery of those supplies to the hardest hit areas, rather than sabotaging those efforts.

We can do this because we’ve done it before, in the face of other crises, and because, in reality, most people in this country believe we should.

What we need right now is a national leader who tells us the truth. Who calls us to this moment and asks us to give a little more than we’re used to giving. Who reminds us that we are more powerful together than we ever could be — ever have been — apart and at odds with one another. Who invokes the collective resolve that has seen this country through other crises of this magnitude. 

We do not currently have a federal government that is capable or willing to meet the challenges we face. But the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic and humanitarian crises it has spawned are profound examples of why we need a federal government that is poised to address this type of challenge when it arises. 

Although the absence of federal leadership will result in more loss of life than it should have, the federal dysfunction can be a time-limited problem. We can elect different leaders a few months from now.

And we can enact new policies that recognize the importance of a few basic human rights, including access to health care, food and shelter, so that we are better positioned to weather the next crisis. 

For now, at least, we still have this power. Let’s exercise it this year, for the good of our families, communities and country.  

Jennifer C. Greenfield is an Associate Professor at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work.