Sanders: Next relief bill must pay everyone $2,000 per month
Sen. Bernie Sanders, still running for the Democratic nomination for president, is calling for another pandemic response package that will send everyone in the country $2,000 per month and also institute improved Medicare for All. | AP

WASHINGTON—Saying the coronavirus pandemic could produce a crash worse than the Great Depression, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., unveiled a comprehensive plan for the next economic aid bill to help workers and families hit hard by the virus.

Key features of the measure include guaranteed jobs for all, universal health care regardless of ability to pay or immigration status, extension of Medicare to pay for everyone – including co-pays, deductibles, and out-of-pocket expenses — and $2,000 monthly government grants to everyone in the U.S. for as long as the emergency continues.

“There is little doubt that we are facing an economic crisis that could be even worse than the Great Depression,” the senator, who still seeks the Democratic presidential nomination, said on his campaign website. “The St. Louis Federal Reserve projected 47 million people may become unemployed by the end of June, with unemployment reaching 32%.

“We must make sure every worker in America continues to receive their paycheck during this crisis and we must provide immediate financial relief to everyone in this country.”

Sanders’s plan joins a plethora of other proposals for the next economic aid bill, which virtually everyone – left and right – expects lawmakers to craft after they return from a three-week recess.

They are similar to proposals late last week from the coalition of progressive and left members of the European Parliament. Their nations – to varying degrees – are also struggling with the economic impact of the pandemic.

Sanders unveiled his plan even before data emerged on April 6 that the U.S. now has at least 350,000 people testing positive for the coronavirus, and more than 10,000 dead. And epidemiologists told the Washington Post those figures underestimate the casualties, but no one knows – yet – by how much.

That’s because they only count deaths and illness victims where a lab test shows the person suffered from the coronavirus. There were so few tests nationwide in the first stages of the pandemic that many deaths at home or in nursing homes were not counted.

Sanders’s comprehensive response contrasts with that of his remaining Democratic primary rival, former Vice President Joseph Biden, who after an initial detailed plan for dealing with the pandemic has been relatively silent.

Biden held a “town hall” with big givers over the past weekend, where he reiterated his opposition to Medicare For All, saying it wouldn’t work and was too expensive – even though one year of Medicare For All would cost less than the $2.2 trillion economic stimulus law Congress cleared on March 18.

Biden and Sanders face off in the April 7 Wisconsin primary. Like other governors of both parties, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers wanted to postpone it and also turn it into a vote-by-mail tally, with easier requirements for absentee voting.

The Republican-run state legislature absolutely and rudely refused. In a further voter suppression move, election officials cited defections of thousands of poll watchers and election judge volunteers and cut the number of polling stations in majority-minority Milwaukee to five – to serve an estimated 100,000 voters.

“Our country is now facing the worst crisis” since the Great Depression, with a pandemic that could lead to the deaths of thousands and the unemployment of millions, Sanders warned. The government response, he declared, must likewise be unprecedented.

Specifically, he wants the next stimulus bill to order firms “to keep everybody on the payroll,” as was done in Norway, the United Kingdom, and Denmark – and as the airline section of the $2.2 trillion economic stimulus law requires.

That provision, which the Association of Flight Attendants/CWA insisted on, through Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., a member the Democratic leadership, covers two million workers – but only through the end of September.

Sanders also demands universal health care, covering everyone, including the undocumented who are omitted from the prior stimulus laws because they lack Social Security cards and/or tax returns. Sanders would do that by automatically extending Medicare to the entire country.

And he’d have Medicare pick up all deductibles, co-pays and out-of-pocket expenses, too.

Expand personal and family medical leave beyond the provisions of 14 days for adults who lost their jobs either due to quarantining or having to stay home to care for family members, or 10 weeks for adults who must now stay home to care for the 55 million schoolchildren who now can’t go to school.

And since millions of adults live in “food deserts,” plus millions of those children depended on schools for their meals, Sanders would expand programs to ensure everyone is fed.

Other aspects of Sanders’s plan include:

  • Using the Defense Production Act to force firms to “produce the equipment and testing we need” to both detect and treat the coronavirus pandemic. That goes not just for the N95 masks, but also for protective gloves, uniforms and other gear.

The lack of such protection has already forced front-line workers in several industries to walk when their employers turned deaf ears to their demands for personal protective equipment (PPE). One big anti-union firm, Amazon, which forced its workers to walk out of their Staten Island warehouse, responded by first firing the organizer – probably illegally – and then trying to smear him.

“Doctors and nurses are unnecessarily putting their lives on the line treating people suffering from the coronavirus because they lack personal protective equipment like masks, gloves, and surgical gowns. The CDC has directed health professionals to use homemade gear like bandanas or scarves, and some workers at the VA are being told to re-use one surgical mask for a week at a time,” Sanders said.

HHS says the nation needs 3.5 billion medical masks, Sanders added. Even with ramped-up production by the prime mask manufacturer, 3M, plus other firms – even including the makers of baseball uniforms – pitching in, the nation is nowhere near that quantity of masks.

  • Like his strong supporters in National Nurses United, Sanders is again urging the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to announce an emergency standard ordering hospitals and other health care facilities to immediately enact and put in place worker protection plans, previously developed, against airborne viruses. That will “protect health care workers, patients, and the public during this crisis,” Sanders said.
  • Pass laws against price-gouging and use them. Several states are already doing so, and 33 state Attorneys General wrote last week to the five big Internet platforms – led by Amazon and Walmart, both notoriously anti-worker as well – demanding they roll back such price-gouging and police further attempts, including letting the AGs do so.

“Companies and individuals who are using this crisis as an opportunity to turn a profit at the expense of human lives and public safety will be investigated and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” he said.

  • Make sure everybody – not just the kids who are missing meals formerly provided in public schools – has healthy food, and enough of it. That means expanding food stamps (SNAP), the women’s, infants’ and children’s feeding program, school food distribution, Meals on Wheels – and have door-to-door drop-offs if needed.
  • Provide $600 billion to states and cities, which are going broke trying to pay first responders and emergency personnel while taking care of their residents. Meanwhile, with businesses closed and commerce in the tank, so are their tax revenues. And the Federal Reserve should “provide direct fiscal aid to states and cities” so they have the money for people and supplies to battle the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Suspend monthly payments like rent – Sanders said 18 million poor families pay more than half their monthly income for housing – mortgage payments, medical debt and debt collections for four months. Stop all evictions, foreclosures and utility shutoffs. And “cancel all student loan payments for the duration of this crisis.”

And then, when the crisis ends, don’t force the renters, medical debtors, student loan recipients and homeowners to pay everything back all at once. As an indication of corporate refusal to do any such thing, news reports said two hospitals in Wisconsin were still pursuing patients in court for back payments even as the patients lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

“Now, with growing unemployment, families are facing financial ruin if we do not act quickly and boldly,” Sanders concluded.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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