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'Not the Time for Half-Measures': Progressives Demand Far-Reaching Economic and Public Health Assistance as Coronavirus Spreads

"Unless people are free to stay home, we're flirting with disaster."

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) speaks during a rally to express solidarity with immigrants and refugees hosted by MoveOn, United We Dream, Families Belong Together, and Popular Democracy near Union Station on May 16, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

As Democratic leaders released their plan to provide economic relief to people affected by the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., progressives both in and out of Congress pushed for more bold and ambitious solutions as the first layoffs resulting from the outbreak were reported and hundreds of schools around the country were closed.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced the Families First Coronavirus Response Act late Wednesday, after 13 public interest groups including Public Citizen and Healthcare for America Now called for far-reaching assistance for workers and families as opposed to the Trump administration's proposal to cut payroll taxes. 

The plan includes free coronavirus testing for all who need it, including uninsured people; 14 days of emergency paid sick leave for all workers; strengthened nutritional assistance including SNAP benefits and school meals; and increased federal funds for Medicaid.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the Democrats' proposal an "ideological wish list" and "off-base." 

"Helping Americans stay alive and financially secure is not off base," countered Charles Booker, a Kentucky state representative who is running for McConnell's Senate seat. "We know you don't see us. We know you don't care if we die. That's exactly why you need to go."

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) on Wednesday introduced a key provision of the bill, the Maintaining Essential Access to Lunch for Students (MEALS) Act, which would allow the USDA to approve state waiver requests for meal distribution which result in increased costs to the federal government.

"As the country responds to coronavirus, we cannot forget that many Americans could face hardship as a result of some of our preventative measures," said Omar on Wednesday. "Twenty-two million children rely on federal subsidized meals. For many kids, it is the only meal they get each day. It is our responsibility to ensure that kids continue to get the meals they need." 

"History will judge us if we don't pass it immediately," Omar added on social media.

According to the congresswoman, more than 430,000 school children had been affected by school closures by Wednesday. 

On social media, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) urged lawmakers to vastly expand their thinking about the kinds of direct assistance that may be necessary for Americans in the coming weeks.

"This is not the time for half measures," Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. "We need to take dramatic action now to stave off the worst public health and economic effects."

The congresswoman mentioned waiving work requirements, universal basic income, detention relief modeled on Iranian officials' decision this week to release 70,000 prisoners on furlough to avoid a coronavirus outbreak in the country's prisons, and debt relief as possible methods of guaranteeing economic relief for Americans. 

Progressive podcaster Benjamin Dixon echoed Ocasio-Cortez's call, calling for a "People's Bailout" to cope with the public health crisis.

"Unless people are free to stay home, we're flirting with disaster," tweeted Dixon.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich called for an emergency relief package of $400 billion, with the money going to coronavirus testing and treatment as well as immediate payments of $1,000 for every adult and $500 per child.

"I don't think this is an over-reaction to what's imminent. It will help us prevent a health and economic calamity," Reich wrote.

The push in the U.S. to quickly push through emergency legislation in the midst of a burgeoning public health crisis contrasted sharply with reports out of countries including Italy, where officials suspended all mortgage and debt payments on Thursday, and Australia, where coronavirus testing is already free through the country's national healthcare program.

Australia's efficient response to the coronavirus, which has affected far fewer people in the country than in the U.S. so far, drew attention on Thursday after actors Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson announced they had been diagnosed with the virus while working in Australia, after reporting cold symptoms and being tested.

"Did Tom Hanks get coronavirus testing because he's lucky enough to be a celebrity?" tweeted author Jonah Blank. "No—he was lucky enough have gotten ill in Australia. If he'd been struck in the U.S., he would not have been able (at least per administration rules) to get tested."

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