On May 11, the Biden Administration officially let the Federal Public Health Emergency expire. First declared at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the PHE expanded access to Medicaid, food stamps (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and housing programs. And the program helped to cover the cost of COVID-19 testing, treatment and vaccination.
The end of PHE has stripped tens of millions of working families of these basic protections against COVID-19, which continues to infect, disable and kill thousands of people every week, disproportionately affecting Indigenous, Black and Latiné communities, including elderly and disabled people.
From now on states have the power to lift any basic safety requirements, including masking, testing and social-distancing requirements at medical facilities, endangering millions of health care workers and patients.
Even measuring the extent of the pandemic has become nearly impossible. On May 11, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has already drastically rolled back its COVID-19 tracking, stopped recording community levels of the viral infection altogether. Citing lackeys of the for-profit medical establishment, the bourgeois corporate press has celebrated the CDC’s decision as the end of the pandemic, even as rates of infection and death continue to grow.
The CDC’s abandonment of its most basic responsibilities exposes the priorities of the ruling class: to sacrifice tens of millions of workers, the elderly, immunocompromised people and people with disabilities for the sake of profit.
Despite funneling hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out banks and to pay for the imperialist proxy war in the Ukraine, bourgeois politicians are using the end of the COVID-19 emergency to force austerity on the working class.
States have already begun throwing at-risk residents off their Medicaid rolls, but, with the official end of the PHE, this process is speeding up. Up to 16 million people risk losing, or have already lost coverage, including 5 million children. This loss of coverage reflects the racism inherent in the capitalist medical system. Of those losing Medicaid, nearly half are people of color.
Workers burdened with federal student debt have been forced to resume payments on their loans, which the government suspended during the PHE. Now that COVID-19 debt relief has ended, Biden’s student loan forgiveness is also in jeopardy. Legal experts predict that the reactionary justices who dominate the Supreme Court will use the end of emergency protections to strike down the forgiveness plan altogether. The top court is expected to give its ruling on student debt forgiveness on June 30.
The loss of PHE coverage compounds the disaster caused by for-profit health care in the U.S. Over 30 million people are uninsured, but, with the end of the PHE, that number will only rise.
More profits means more human misery
As is invariably the case under capitalism, workers’ suffering means blood money for the ruling class. The health care industry plans to increase its already record-breaking profits by extorting patients for testing and treatment, which the federal government is no longer covering.
Privatized hospitals will charge those infected with COVID-19 exorbitant bills for their stay, while Big Pharma giants plan to jack up the prices of treatments. Pfizer will charge over $530 per course of treatment of its Paxlovid antiviral medication. Eli Lilly will charge up to $2,000 for its monoclonal antibody treatment, Bebtelovimab.
The federal government will continue to provide free vaccines until its stockpile runs out, after which point vaccination will become privatized. Pfizer now plans to charge patients up to $130 per shot.
All federal assistance for testing has ended, forcing people to bear the full cost of finding out whether or not they are infected.
Combatting this assault on workers, people with disabilities and all at-risk communities requires taking all possible measures to protect those communities from the ongoing pandemic. Already health care and disability justice groups are taking the lead in mobilizing against the end of the PHE.
The Massachusetts Coalition of Health Equity staged an action May 4, attended by Boston members of Workers World Party, to demand the state’s hospitals keep masking and other safety protocols in place. Such demands are a crucial first step in building the revolutionary solidarity necessary to organize a future where health care and all other human needs are no longer bound to profits.