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It has been more than five months since the United States Senate has passed legislation responding to the coronavirus pandemic.
On April 21, when the Senate last passed legislation, there were 834,948 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States, which had resulted in 46,380 deaths. Today, there are more than 7 million confirmed cases, which have resulted in more than 200,000 deaths.
The number of Americans that have died from COVID-19 is the equivalent of the 9/11 attack, every day, for 66 straight days.
The pandemic, of course, has impacted everyone — not just those who have gotten sick. The country is in the middle of an economic crisis. There are millions of people without jobs, facing eviction, and unable to provide their children with enough food.
In response, Mitch McConnell and the Senate Republicans plan to do nothing. Instead, they will focus the next six weeks on confirming a replacement for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Much of the coverage has focused on the hypocrisy of this decision. And it is hypocritical. Many Republican Senators opposed consideration of Merrick Garland when he was nominated in 2016 because it was an election year. Several pledged, for the sake of consistency, to oppose the consideration of any Trump nominee in 2020. But nearly all are ready to go back on their word to create an enduring right-wing majority on the court.
But beyond the hypocrisy, the Senate's decision is heartless. Millions of Americans desperately need help. But the Senate is choosing to ignore the ongoing pandemic to pursue a narrow ideological agenda.
The state of the economic crisis
The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed at 27,263.84 on Tuesday — down a thousand points since the beginning of the year and roughly the same level that it was in November 2019.
In March, when the Dow Jones briefly dipped to 18,500, it was an economic crisis. Now, Republican political leadership in Washington has moved on.
But for many, things are only getting worse.
A July survey found "29 million adults — 12.1 percent of all adults in the country — reported that their household sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat in the last seven days." This means that there are "9 to 17 million children who live in a household in which the children were not eating enough because the household couldn’t afford it." Nearly twice as many Black and Latino respondents (21 percent for both groups) reported difficulty affording food than white respondents (8 percent).
Americans are also struggling to afford rent, putting them at risk of eviction. A survey found "14.8 million adults who live in rental housing — 1 in 5 adult renters — were behind on rent the week ending July 21." Groups that are more likely to experience problems paying rent include renters with children (29%), Blacks (31%), and Latinos (28%). As Popular Information reported, the federal government's purported "eviction moratorium" is not stopping landlords from kicking people out of their homes.
Overall, "19 million children, or 1 in 4 children, live in a household that isn’t getting enough to eat, is behind on rent or mortgage payments, or both," according to an analysis by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
Issues with food and rent are directly related to unemployment, which remains very high, at 8.4%. Most of those who have lost their jobs were already struggling financially. Jobs in "the lowest-paying industries account for 30 percent of all jobs but 51 percent of the jobs lost from February to July."
Meanwhile, the economic relief passed by Congress in March and April was exhausted months ago. The $1200 stimulus payment to Americans who make less than $100,000 was a one-time benefit. Support for small businesses through the PPP program was designed to last two months. The additional $600 per week in unemployment benefits ended in July.
The pandemic is still raging. The House passed a robust bill in May that would have provided "a second — and larger — round of direct payments to individual Americans, up to $6,000 per household." The legislation also "would increase nutrition assistance benefits by 15 percent and provide $175 billion in housing assistance." The $600 in weekly unemployment benefits would be extended until January. But the Senate has decided to ignore the economic devastation.
The state of the public health crisis
Around the world, life is close to normal in a number of countries. Life in the United States, however, is still severely disrupted. One reason is that the country has failed to invest in the basic public health infrastruture to control the virus.
The most effective tool to stop the spread of COVID-19 is the N95 mask. But, more than 6 months into the pandemic, there aren't even enough N95 masks in the United States to even meet the needs of of health care workers. N95 masks are supposed to be discarded after treating each patient. But in an August survey, 68% of nurses report being required to reuse N95 masks. Some are forced to reuse the same mask for months. Meanwhile, N95 masks are virtually unavailable for other wokers who could use them like "teachers and day-care workers, factory employees and flight attendants, restaurant servers and grocery store clerks."
Another critical tool to control the virus is testing. As the NBA bubble has demonstrated, frequent testing of a population, combined with cloth masks and other protocols, can quickly bring the infection rate of a given population down to zero. But in the United States as a whole, there still aren't nearly enough tests. In some areas it can take days to get an appointment for a COVID-19 test. And once someone gets a test, it still takes an average of four days to receive results — which makes effective contract tracing virtually impossible.
Widely available testing and N95 masks would make it possible for many Americans to safely return to work and school. Legislation approved by the House and sent to the Senate in May, provided "$75 billion for coronavirus testing and contact tracing." But the Senate refused to take up the House legislation because the overall package was too costly. Trump has suggested that the country already conducts too many tests.
Now, the Senate has shifted its attention to other priorities.