The term “Churchillian” describes a writer or speaker whose style emulates that of Former Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill. Politicians are called Churchillian when they appear to be uncompromising, focused, and strong. Not often does one come across a Churchillian figure. Rarer still when one comes upon a Churchillian response to a crisis.
In my May 7, 2021 Blog Post (“The Pandemic’s End Ends Not the Pain”), I outlined my thoughts about the next COVID-19 challenge – dealing with the economic consequences of four (4) million years of “lost life” and the ongoing economic impact to COVID-19 Long Haulers (those suffering Post-Acute COVID-19 Syndrome or “PACS”). I candidly expressed my concern that these twin impacts disproportionately hit underserved and disadvantaged communities, and these impacts could last a generation or more. And I boldly suggested that it did not have to be this way – That examples from our past could give a roadmap to lessen these twin injuries and help us move forward.
I suggested that proof of these views would emerge over time. It has.
A recent study authored by Dr. Steve Woolf of Virginia Commonwealth University reports that the average life-expectancy of Americans decreased between 2018 and 2020 by a full two years. In 2018, the average American could expect to live to be 79 years old. By the end of 2020, the average American could expect to live to be 77 years old.
While this stunning drop in life expectancy by itself warrants concern, the disparity between Caucasian-Americans and minority community members warrants alarm bells.
Dr. Woolf reports that between 2018 and 2020, the life expectancy of Hispanics decreased 3.9 years, and the life expectancy of African Americans decreased 3.3 years.
The shocking reality is that life expectancy in our minority communities decreased twice as much as in our majority communities. See e.g. National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, “News Brief: Vaccination Rate, Life Expectancy, 1st Amendment Case” (June 24, 2021) (transcript available at: https://www.npr.org/2021/06/24/1009750921/morning-news-brief)(last accessed July 8, 2021); PBS News Hour, “U.S. Life Expectancy sees ‘Massive’ Decline, Especially in Black and Brown Communities” (June 24, 2021) (available at: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/us-life-expectancy-sees-massive-decline-especially-in-black-and-brown-communities)(last accessed July 8, 2021). See also Virginia Commonwealth University News, “Working-Age Americans Dying at Higher Rates, Especially in Economically Hard-Hit States” (Nov. 26, 2019)(available at: https://news.vcu.edu/article/Workingage_Americans_dying_at_higher_rates_especially_in_economically)(last accessed July 8, 2021).
Dr. Woolf’s work carefully noted that the decrease in life expectancy cannot be solely attributed to COVID. Systemic poverty, poor health care, housing conditions and other factors strongly affected these shocking numbers. COVID certainly played its part.
How do we address this challenge? History teaches lessons – lessons implemented by governments on the federal, state and local level. Here are four examples that point a path to a more equitable future.
Workers Compensation: First adopted by Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismark in 1881 as a workers accident insurance system, by 1949 every state in the United States had adopted some version of a worker accidence fund (either voluntary or compulsory). Many factors contributed to the need for a global solution to address the challenges created by rising workplace injuries and deaths. Injured workers could not obtain compensation without a showing of “fault.” The American legal system required these claims to be decided through court litigation, with delays, legal fees and associated costs impacting the ability of workers to receive timely payments. The “unholy trinity” of defenses to such claims (the “fellow-servant doctrine” which barred compensation for injuries caused by co-workers, “assumption of the risk” and “contributory negligence”) also limited redress. If a worker won compensation, often the business would be insolvent, or the awards themselves would make them so.
These impediments to timely compensation forced businesses and governments to overturn that inequitable system. In place of a system where the injured had to show “fault,” a “no fault” system replaced it. A “Faustian” bargain was forged limiting legal fees and awards, but speeding up compensation to workers, funded by payroll taxes. While not perfect by any means, virtually every state in the United States has adopted workers compensation as the primary means to compensate injured employees.
Unemployment Insurance: Like workers compensation, unemployment provides for limited compensation to employees injured by job loss. Funded by payroll taxes, this system provides for needed economic relief without government subsidy or “welfare.” Workers unemployed receive compensation so long as they continue to seek employment and were not terminated for willful misconduct. Again, this bargain (providing compensation broadly, but limiting benefits to prevent “windfalls”) exists throughout the United States and payroll taxes fund it.
September 11 Victim’s Compensation Fund: More recently, the United States government created the September 11 Victim’s Compensation Fund to provide payments to those injured or killed (and their families) because of the September 11 Terror Attacks. This $7.9 billion-plus-fund provides a system for claim administration and payments through 2090. See https://www.vcf.gov/about (last accessed July 8, 2021).
Winston Churchill’s “Bombing Insurance” Plan: The “shared sacrifice” model behind workers compensation, unemployment insurance and the September 11 Victim’s Compensation Fund did not begin or end in the United States. In the midst of the Second World War, after witnessing the widespread destruction of London and its surrounding communities, Sir Winston Churchill called for the British Government to compensate those impacted by Nazi bombing. While concerned about the financial impact of the proposal, within a “fortnight” (14 days), his government had adopted an insurance system to spread the cost. Churchill understood the need for a Great Nation to share in great sacrifice. See Churchill, Winston S., Memoirs of the Second World War (abridgement by Denis Kelly), Houghlan Miffin (1959, 1987).
Now we come upon a once-in-a-lifetime Pandemic that did not injure us all equally. Our neighbors, friends and fellow citizens who suffer a disproportionate share of the injury will need our help to overcome the harsh effects which may last years. A Great Nation and its Peoples would acknowledge these inequities, roll-up their collective sleaves and confront this generational challenge.
In my next bog post on this topic, I will outline a plan for shared sacrifice.