By Exposing a Flawed System, Pandemic Shows Policy Must Put People First

By Stephen Leas

The U.S. is now by far the country with the most confirmed cases of coronavirus and deaths. Essential workers are operating in dangerous conditions. Nursing home residents, the homeless, immigrant detainees, and prisoners are particularly at risk. Public places are closed and many states are on lockdown. The effect has been shocking.

Ten million people filed unemployment claims in the late March — a record high. With social distancing forcing us to process these traumatic events alone, there is a real threat of a mental health crisis.

The grief and confusion should not be minimized, especially in Washington, where Congress is working on the next bailout package. As the economy heads into a likely recession, the government should be focused on helping people instead of bailing out the rich and powerful.

Thus far, Congress has passed a series of bills that provide temporary relief checks and expand some benefits, but they are merely a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.

The Sunrise Movement is one of more than 500 groups and organizations across the country demanding a People’s Bailout, with simple, fundamental principles:

· make health the top priority

· provide sustained economic relief directly to people

· rescue workers and communities rather than corporate executives

· invest in good jobs in a regenerative economy

· protect our democracy

Health is the top priority

The first principle addresses the most urgent matter: Linking health insurance coverage to the workplace has always been a bad idea. Health care must be treated as a human right, guaranteed and funded during this crisis and permanently thereafter.

COVID-19 has laid bare the dysfunction of the American health care system. Congress reacted to the pandemic by making testing for the coronavirus free and expanding sick leave, but there remains a shortage of tests, and sick-leave expansion still leaves out many in need. There is also a flip side to the problem. Health care workers face a protective equipment shortage, a systemic issue exacerbated by President Donald Trump.

The crisis grows by the day, as people lose their jobs and, consequently, their health insurance coverage. Along with the 30 million people in the country already uninsured, 3.5 million likely lost their employer-provided health insurance in the past two weeks and will have to pay more for access at a time of crisis. Uninsured people may face up to up to $75,000 in medical bills if hospitalized for the virus. U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez has suggested Medicare for All as a response to the crisis. Even Trump, in a stunning reversal, indicated that he is considering Medicare expansion.

Economic relief for people and communities, not executives and companies

The second and third principles of a just bailout focus on the need for economic relief for those people and small business owners who actually need it. While the most recent legislation expands unemployment benefits and provides one-time relief checks of $1,200 to many Americans, this will not be enough.

A just economic relief package would go further than token one-time checks and make regular, livable payments to each person, with larger payments going to low-income and poor people.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders released a set of six provisions that could tackle the problem at scale. His plan includes providing payments of $2,000 per month until the crisis ends, including to the undocumented, the homeless, and those without bank accounts.

Instead of helping people, the most-recent stimulus package from Congress created a $500 billion slush fund for corporations with minimal oversight. Any future corporate bailouts must come with conditions that require worker representation, a living wage, high labor standards, and stop employment discrimination. So far, recent legislation does not rise to the enormity of the crisis.

Make a down payment on a regenerative economy; protect our democracy

The fourth principle of the People’s Bailout calls for a medium-term stimulus package to create millions of jobs with sustainable wages and high labor standards. Priority should go to people who actually need the money. This package could serve as the foundation for the next generation of infrastructure to avoid future crises.

In another recent post, I argued that the coronavirus has shown us how vulnerable we are to pandemics, and how startlingly similar the consequences are to what climate change could bring. We must prepare for the future, and a green stimulus would set us on a path toward resilience. Building new infrastructure is not possible during a quarantine, but it’s time to get started on the planning. Millions of jobs in clean energy, building retrofits, local food economies and transit could become available soon after social distancing ends.

The crisis demands an urgent response. We must demand that our politicians provide emergency health care coverage and economic relief, and to keep our electoral process safe by allowing mail-in voting.

Everything in the People’s Bailout is based on the idea that health care, economic stability, and a livable future are basic rights and primary goals. We must view our entire society from a human-centered perspective, ahead of businesses.

What we are seeing unfold across the country leads us to the inevitable conclusion that we must address the immediate needs of those experiencing health and economic tragedies, and we must invest in a future that makes it easier next time. It won’t be easy, but we can do it. And the People’s Bailout is a big step in that direction.

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