Sanders and “The Squad” on COVID-19: Spend whatever it takes to support workers
Screen grab from Sen. Bernie Sanders's Coronavirus Roundtable.

“This is an unprecedented moment in history, and we need to act in unprecedented ways, no matter what it costs,” declared Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). “We need to guarantee to every American they will not be left hanging,” and that they have the health care, food, and housing they need during this crisis.

Sanders, who is still running to be the Democratic Presidential nominee, was outlining an emergency response to the Coronavirus pandemic and catastrophic economic freefall on a March 22 live stream. He was joined in a virtual roundtable by Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.).

Sanders blasted the $2 trillion stimulus package Trump and GOP Senators are trying to ram through Congress. He called the legislation a “blank check” to greedy corporations but without any protections to workers. The GOP legislation showers hundreds of billions of dollars on the airline, space, confectionary, and hospitality industries. The National Association of Manufacturers is demanding $1.4 trillion for corporations.

“This won’t happen,” he said. “To think at this moment when we have doctors and nurses on the front lives to protect the American people, corporate lobbyists are working overtime to get special benefits for their corporations.”

The coronavirus pandemic is exposing the dysfunctionality of the health care system. “Health care is a human right, and this crisis is one big case study why we need Medicare for All,” said Ocasio-Cortez. The crisis is also exposing gaping holes and economic and social inequalities throughout society and layers of injustice based on race, gender, identity, and immigrant status, she said.

Sanders laid out a sweeping set of proposals to address the healthcare, economic, and social needs of the American people in the wake of the crisis.

Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. | AP

“One might think as we spend $11,000 [on health care annually] per person we would be prepared for this epidemic, and our medical professionals would have ventilators, masks, gloves, protective gowns to do their jobs,” he said. “But they don’t have the medical equipment. We are seeing medical professionals getting sick. It’s a tragedy and frightening situation because if our frontline nurses and doctors go down, who is there to protect our people from getting sick?”

The president has the power in an emergency to invoke the Defense Production Act to command private corporations to produce items needed, such as personal protective equipment like masks, gowns, and gloves. Trump has continued to refuse to use this authority despite urgent pleas from governors, mayors, public health officials, and unions who are alarmed by the dangerous shortage of such crucial items.

The shortages are leading to price gouging and hoarding. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said his state is searching globally for masks and competing against other states doing the same thing. As a result, a mask that usually costs $0.89 now costs $4.

“Trump must order the immediate production of ventilators, Intensive Care Units, test kits, and agents to develop those tests. We need to have kits available to determine in an hour if someone is infected. We don’t want to fill beds with people who don’t need them,” he said.

He called for the increased availability of mobile medical units placed alongside hospitals. The Department of Defense and Veterans Administration have those resources, and some are already being deployed in New York, Washington, and California.

Sanders said no one could predict how big the economic crisis impacting tens of millions will be nor how long it will last. Many economists are predicting unemployment will surge past 20 percent. James Bullard, president of St. Louis Federal Reserve, said unemployment could surpass 30% in the coming months. By comparison, unemployment reached 24.9% at the height of the Great Depression.

“There are massive losses in the stock market, and many Americans are worried about retirement security. This is the worst economic downturn since the 1930s. The U.S. Congress must act. We have to make everybody in this country feel confident they will be taken care of,” said Sanders.

The need for urgent federal government action underscored the reality of tens of millions of workers making minimum wages, working part-time, and others who rely on tips losing their jobs. Over 40% of people don’t have $400 in the bank for an emergency. Millions will have to make mortgage, car, or credit card payments by April 1.

“How are they going to feed their families, keep a roof over their heads?” asked Sanders. “There is an enormous economic anxiety.”

“The U.K., Germany, Denmark, and Norway (governments) are moving aggressively to guarantee 75–100% of the paychecks of workers in businesses that commit to not laying off employees,” said Sanders. “This is what we should be doing. Is that a radical statement? Yes, of course. But these are unprecedented times. And we should spend whatever it takes to make sure every family in America is made whole.”

Unemployment insurance covers a minority of workers, and sick leave covers only about 20%. “Every worker in America needs to know they will be able to retain their income up to at least $75,000 a year,” and every worker should be eligible for family and medical leave, said Sanders.

He also called for guaranteeing a $2,000-a-month payment to every man, woman, and child until the crisis is over. The GOP is calling for only a $1,000 lump sum, which Sanders and others have called totally inadequate.

Tlaib said many of her constituents were living in survival mode before the pandemic and economic free fall. She said the government’s response had to be aggressive and inclusive.

“We can’t pick winners and losers. The government’s response must be centered around people,” said Tlaib. She rejected the GOP proposal for a one-time $1,000 lump sum payment because many public health officials expect the crisis to last over a year.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the economic and social vulnerability of vast numbers of Americans. Every person needs to be covered “regardless of immigration status, tribal, and territory status. This is not a time to play stupid games. We are all in this together,” said Sanders. “Everyone needs to be reassured that whatever medical care they or their families need will be covered.”

The crisis also threatens to bankrupt states and cities. They will be unable to provide essential services and pay salaries of state workers, including health care and other frontline workers risking their lives. Sanders and Tlaib called upon the Federal Reserve to buy up short-term debt securities to ensure states have operating revenues.

Guaranteeing food security for the elderly, children, and low-income workers is also crucial. Sanders called for expansion of Meals on Wheels and SNAP programs to ensure no one goes hungry during this crisis.

Similarly, an immediate moratorium is needed on evictions, utility cutoffs, foreclosures, as well as rent and mortgage payments.

Tlaib said over 3,000 Detroit residents had suffered utility shut-offs over the past few years. Even though Detroit declared a moratorium on shut-offs, only about 250 homes have had their service restored. Tlaib called for restoring water to everyone; otherwise, it is insane to ask people to wash their hands frequently.

A moratorium on student loan payments is also necessary. “Cancelling student loan debt totally is within government power. Even pressing the pause button is something you could do tomorrow if there is the political will,” said Ocasio-Cortez.

Omar and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) have introduced the Student Debt Emergency Relief Act which would cancel at least $30,000 in student debt for each borrower. “Student debt was a crisis before the coronavirus. And it’s an even deeper crisis now,” Omar said. “We must not force Americans to choose between putting food on the table and paying off exorbitant student loans.”

Now is the time to begin a de-carceral policy by granting clemency to thousands of elderly prisoners so they can be cared for at home. “People are at risk in places like Rikers Island (in New York City). So many prisoners are crammed into cells. Twenty-one prisoners have already tested positive for COVID-19, and those are the folks who have been tested. Because testing is limited, we have no idea how extensive this outbreak is,” she said.

Ocasio-Cortez said it was unnecessary in this emergency to jail thousands of people awaiting pre-trial hearings, and those arrested for low-level crimes. She called for an end to detentions of undocumented immigrants by ICE, some who have started a hunger strike in New Jersey.

“Everyone realizes we are all in this together,” she said.


John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He is active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, where he attended Antioch College in Yellow Springs. He currently lives in Chicago.