Public healthWhat Has the Pandemic Revealed about the U.S. Health Care System — and What Needs to Change?

Published 7 April 2021

With vaccinations for Covid-19 now underway across the nation, seven MIT scholars engaged in health and health care research share their views on what the pandemic has revealed about the U.S. health care system — and what needs to change.

With vaccinations for Covid-19 now underway across the nation, MIT SHASS Communications asked seven MIT scholars engaged in health and health care research to share their views on what the pandemic has revealed about the U.S. health care system — and what needs to change. Representing the fields of medicine, anthropology, political science, health economics, science writing, and medical humanities, these researchers articulate a range of opportunities for U.S. health care to become more equitable, more effective and coherent, and more prepared for the next pandemic.

Dwaipayan Banerjee, associate professor of science, technology, and society
On the heels of Ebola, Covid-19 put to rest a persistent, false binary between diseases of the rich and diseases of the poor. For several decades, health care policymakers have labored under the impression of a great epidemiological transition. This theory holds that the developed world has reached a stage in its history that it no longer needs to worry about communicable diseases. These “diseases of the poor” are only supposed to exist in distant places with weak governments and struggling economies. Not here in the United States.

On the surface, Covid-19 made clear that diseases do not respect national boundaries. More subtly, it tested the hypothesis that the global north no longer need concern itself with communicable disease. And in so doing, it undermined our assumptions about global north health-care infrastructures as paradigmatically more evolved.

Over the last decades, the United States has been focused on developing increasingly sophisticated drugs. While this effort has ushered in several technological breakthroughs, a preoccupation with magic-bullet cures has distracted from public health fundamentals. The spread of the virus revealed shortages in basic equipment and hospitals beds, the disproportionate effects of disease on the marginalized, the challenge of prevention rather than cure, the limits of insurance-based models to provide equitable care, and our unacknowledged dependence on the labor of underpaid health care workers.

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