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April 7, 2020

Corona Beer, Jared Kushner, and the Coronavirus

by Anne Paddock

It must really suck to be Corona beer right now. A pale lager loved by beer drinkers, Corona beer has the unfortunate distinction of being associated by name with the worldwide pandemic of the coronavirus. How did this happen?

The word “corona” refers to a crown or the gaseous envelope that looks like a glowing circle of light (a halo) around the sun or stars:  a fitting name for a beer bottled in clear glass that  would go on to become the top selling imported beer in the United States.

Now owned by Anheiser Busch (a multinational drink and brewing company based in Belgium), the maker of Corona beer, Grupo Modelo has temporarily suspended production of Corona beer in Mexico because the government has ordered nonessential businesses to close in response to the spread of the coronavirus (note:  there are those who believe the making of beer is essential even if the government doesn’t agree) but having a product labeled “Corona” when a virus called “coronavirus” is wreaking havoc upon the world doesn’t make for a happy retail situation.

For the record, “coronavirus” got its name because the virion (the complete virus) is surrounded by a “corona” (crown). Who would have ever guessed that a celestial name chosen nearly 100 years ago to distinguish a beer would later be used to describe a virus that has sickened and killed thousands? Which leads me to Jared Kushner. Who would have thought a young, wealthy, well-educated man from New York City, married to one of Donald Trump’s daughters, would be working with FEMA to oversee the distribution of medical supplies from the national stockpile?  I didn’t but I also didn’t see a worldwide pandemic and the loss of so many lives as probable either.  Possible, yes but not probable.  After all, this is 2020, not 1918 when the Spanish Flu claimed anywhere from 17 – 100 million people, depending on who you believe. We have more and better machines, medications, stricter sanitary practices, more knowledge and education, and advanced technology.  What we don’t have is the brain bandwidth to realize that even with all the advances we’ve made in healthcare, a pandemic has to be fought at the national level with the states, not at a state level with each state competing with other states for resources.

Last week Jared Kushner spoke during a press conference where he put forth the directive that governors should know basic information like how many ventilators are in their respective states and what the current utilization rates are before the federal government will ship ventilators to them. Seems there are governors out there that had no idea how many ventilators are in their respective states (because most states have both non-profit and for-profit hospitals who don’t want to disclose this information and who don’t work together) but felt compelled to ask for more because our country has been overtaken by a pandemic and they’re not sure they have enough. For the record, it’s their job to know how many ventilators they have and what the utilization rates are, so Kushner was right to hold the governors accountable. The allocation and use of limited resources requires accurate data from the end users.

This is the point to step back because everyone seems to be blaming everyone else for not being prepared for this pandemic which was clearly coming down the pike, even if they didn’t want to believe it. I’m not a fan of Jared Kushner but I’m also not a fan of Congress, the Senate, the President, insurance companies, and our disjointed healthcare system that operates in both public and private arenas. It’s a hodgepodge of people, government, public and private organizations, and special interest groups that operate at microlevels to deal with a macro problem.

At the core of our healthcare system (both public and private) is profit. No organization – including non-profits – wants to spend more than they have to because the accumulation of profit has always been important. Profits provide rewards to shareholders or owners (for-profit organizations) and helps ensure long-term survival (for non-profit organizations because the profits go to the general fund or what some refer to as the endowment) which brings me to the conclusion that there is no incentive for our healthcare system to plan for a pandemic because any asset not being used (generating income) will eat away at profits.

There are about 6,100 hospitals in the US. At the time the coronavirus broke out, there were about 160,000 ventilators in the US that cost about $20,000 each. That’s an average of about 26 ventilators per hospital. We can ask the hundreds of hospitals/health care systems in our country that have millions, often hundreds of millions and even billions, why they didn’t spend $500,000 to have 25 additional ventilators stockpiled for each hospital and most of them will probably answer that they didn’t deem it necessary (if a piece of equipment is stockpiled, it’s not being used and therefore not generating revenue and ultimately profits). We could have had 150,000 more ventilators at a cost of $3 billion (or $8.50 per taxpayer) if we thought ahead instead of being shortsighted.  And, we could have operated an efficient ventilator distribution plan at the national level whereby ventilators and staff would be deployed to hot spots when needed because not every city or state reaches the apex at the same time.

And, we can ask our governors why they weren’t prepared with pandemic plans and they will probably say it was not their job to prepare for a national pandemic. And, we can ask the federal government why they weren’t prepared to provide more support to the states and they will probably say it’s the state’s frontline responsibility to plan for these situations while the federal government’s responsibility is to step in to assist with the problem. And, they’re right, in a way.

We live in a country where state’s rights are paramount. We are 50 united states (hence, our name) that have always valued a state’s rights to choose what’s best for themselves (we even had a civil war about this issue) within reason, except when its not convenient to do so. If we want to rely on the national government for national pandemics, then we need national rules that all states and healthcare organizations operating in those states have to adhere to. That we can’t even get all the states to issue a stay-at-home order to protect all of us (viruses don’t adhere to state borders) or hospitals to work together to share ventilators speaks volumes about who is to blame for this mess:  ourselves.

The folks at Corona beer never anticipated sharing a name with a worldwide pandemic; most Americans never anticipated a pandemic or that the President’s son-in-law would work with FEMA to distribute medical supplies from the national stockpile or that his role would ultimately shine a light on the basic problem of dealing with a national issue at the state level:  it doesn’t work. Americans want it both ways; they want state’s rights so they can decide what’s best for themselves yet they want the national government to step in when they didn’t plan or can’t do it on their own, and they want both public and private healthcare providers who operate independently to just magically work together when the country is overwhelmed wth a pandemic. Maybe Americans should start thinking about doing what Corona did:  they shut it down. If we want to deal with a national healthcare pandemic at a national level, maybe we should start thinking about organizing and managing healthcare at a national level. But, in order to do that we have to think about all of us (national) and not just some of us (state by state).  Then, maybe we really would be the united states.

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