SUBSCRIBESubscribe to WIRED and stay smart with more of your favorite Ideas writers.Free markets are powerful tools to efficiently distribute resources. But they are not magic—especially right now. A functional market can’t spring up overnight for a disease that didn’t even exist last year. Worse still, markets have no concern for the public good. The US health care system may be a free market, but it’s not a fair one. Covid makes this terribly clear.Take testing, for instance. The number of tests being done has increased by more than an order of magnitude since last spring, yet we still don’t have enough to meet demand. The privileged and connected, however, don’t seem to be having any problems. Billionaire Elon Musk recently tweeted that he had taken four rapid antigen tests for Covid in succession, and then sent off multiple PCR tests (with an enviable 24-hour turnaround) for confirmation. In the beginning, labs were hampered by a slow-to-respond Food and Drug Administration. Now the problem is lack of resources. PCR testing—the gold standard for Covid diagnosis—relies on expensive machines, multiple chemical reagents, highly trained staff, and a pile of cheap plastic “consumables.” All of these are still in short supply. The US can run millions of Covid-19 PCR tests every day, but it’s just not enough given the ongoing outbreak. Many of these supplies are used for testing other infectious diseases, too—so the delays are not limited to Covid.
Musk may be an eccentric example of how the wealthy and powerful cut to the front of the testing line, but he’s not the biggest offender. More uncomfortable is the use of widespread testing to keep college campuses and professional sports open. Schools like the University of Illinois can run more than 10,000 tests per day, while nursing homes—the places hardest hit by the disease—struggle to keep their turnaround times acceptable. This is America’s free market health care system at work: If you can pay more or have the right connections, you get what you need; if you don’t, you suffer.
The pandemic didn’t have to go like this. With no time for “market wisdom” to develop, the government could have jumped in to coordinate and ration testing resources. Instead, the list of market failures seems to grow daily. Testing capacity is not evenly distributed, so some labs are sitting idle while others are crushed under the volume. Because no one’s sure how long the pandemic will last, labs don’t want to invest too much money in expensive equipment that will be useless in a year or two. Providers are left to their own devices to figure out where to send tests. Many struggle to identify which labs will provide the quickest turnarounds, lowest prices, and most reliable results.
The federal government has taken some half-hearted steps to intervene. When test manufacturer Abbott’s rapid antigen test was authorized, the Trump administration immediately purchased almost the entire supply. The feds have since attempted to distribute these tests by need rather than wealth (though nursing homes remain reluctant to use them). The government also utilized the Defense Production Act to expedite and coordinate testing and protective equipment, but experts suggest this could be done far more aggressively, with even the Congressional Research Service calling Trump’s use of the act “sporadic and relatively narrow.”
In a free market pandemic, labs, hospitals, and patients are actually competitors. Profit may be prioritized over need. Hospitals and laboratories have taken huge financial losses as the pandemic cut into lucrative elective procedures. The quick expansion of Covid testing has, despite its challenges, provided income to ameliorate this damage, but it’s not enough. Universities, fearing an existential loss of tuition revenue, will do anything possible to keep their students from the supposed indignity of Zoom classes.
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