The postal service is essential to national security
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of medical and food supply chains as well as the importance of often overlooked and underpaid service workers. Another group of essential employees who have demonstrated their resilience are postal workers.
While the rest of the country is in various stages of lockdown, the U.S. Postal Service continues operations. Yet today the Postal Service is faced with the threat of drastic cuts or elimination by the Trump administration.
Just as COVID-19 revealed the misaligned priorities of the past several decades, including the failure to identify health and health care as integral to national security, it has also demonstrated the importance of a vibrant and well-funded Postal Service. Privatizing or eliminating the Postal Service will weaken, not strengthen, America’s national security posture when it is needed most.
The Postal Service plays a vital role as the nation’s sole, universally accessible means of communication. With more than 30,000 post offices, hundreds of sorting facilities and a fleet of over 100,000 trucks, the postal system is also an essential infrastructure possessing the unique ability to make contact with every household and business in the nation daily.
The indispensable physical connection the Postal Service maintains between the American people and the federal government means the institution’s future is a matter of national security. COVID-19 also makes clear that the Postal Service has a necessary role to play in health security, as a mechanism for delivering health-related materials and communications.
Precautionary measures against future biological, chemical or radiological emergencies received new attention following the September 11 terrorist attacks and subsequent anthrax scare. The need for federal action to cope with a forthcoming public health crisis was reinforced by the 2003 Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and 2009 swine flu outbreaks, as well as the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).
Indeed, federal health and security officials have recognized the Postal Service’s crucial, if understated, role. To prepare for potential terrorist attacks and pandemics, volunteer letter carriers completed successful dry runs of medicine distribution in Boston, Philadelphia and Seattle. In 2008, then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt stated, “We have found letter carriers to be the federal government’s quickest and surest way of getting pills to whole communities.”
Building on this precedent, President Barack Obama issued an executive order to create plans for postal workers to distribute medicine door-to-door during public health emergencies. Using a small congressional appropriation, the Postal Service then partnered with the Department of Health and Human Services, state and local health departments, and law enforcement agencies to conduct pilot programs that gave letter carriers the requisite training to conduct this vital assignment.
Sadly, the alarming possibility of such a national emergency has become real. With over 70,000 dead Americans and counting and 30 million unemployed, COVID-19’s impact is undeniable. Yet the White House is threatening to withhold necessary funding to keep the Postal Service operational as mail revenues fall sharply due to the current economic contraction.
More than ever, millions of Americans need a functional public postal system for the delivery of pharmaceuticals, government communications and important items that are not readily available. If testing kits for coronavirus are to be distributed widely, the safest and most reliable method will be through the Postal Service.
While critics have argued that the Postal Service is inefficient, they ignore that its financial problems prior to this current crisis followed from a burdensome requirement to pre-fund retiree health benefits. No other federal agency operates under such a budgetary constraint. Similarly, the Postal Service’s projected controllable loss of $4 billion for fiscal year 2020 is a fraction of the Pentagon’s budget. Yet there is no expectation that the Departments of Defense or Homeland Security are profitable endeavors, nor could they be due to their national security mandates.
Moreover, advocates of privatization for the illusory promise of efficiencies and improved management deliberately ignore the repeated government bailouts of airlines, banks and other corporations over the past two decades. Meanwhile, the Postal Service has continued to operate through it all.
The failure to respond early and effectively to COVID-19 has demonstrated the implications of an underfunded public health system. These failures will be exacerbated by the elimination or privatization of the Postal Service. If the United States hopes to improve how it handles a second wave of COVID-19 or a new pandemic, now is the time to strengthen the Postal Service not eliminate it or embrace the false promise of privatization.
Christopher W. Shaw is a historian and author of “Preserving the People’s Post Office” and “Money, Power, and People: The American Struggle to Make Banking Democratic.” Osamah F. Khalil is an associate professor of History at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and the author of “America’s Dream Palace: Middle East Expertise and the Rise of the National Security State.”
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