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A medical worker treats an intubated Covid-19 patient in the ICU at Hartford Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut on January 18, 2022. (Photo: Joseph Prezioso/AFP via Getty Images)

One Million American Covid-19 Deaths Is a Searing Indictment of Poverty and Policy Choices

Politicians catering to the extremely wealthy at the expense of the 140 million Americans who are poor or low-income is precisely what made the pandemic so deadly.

The U.S. has now reached the once unthinkable toll of 1 million deaths from COVID-19. How could this happen in the wealthiest country in the world?

In a word, because of poverty—and the policy choices that perpetuate it. Our task now is to make different choices.

It's not just that the poor have suffered. Equally important is that the very richest Americans have seen their wealth skyrocket.

Americans across the country have suffered during this pandemic. But new research by the Poor People's Campaign strongly suggests the poor and low-income have suffered the most. Even controlling for vaccination rates, they found that COVID-19 death rates in poorer U.S. counties were nearly double those in wealthier counties. During the deadliest phases of the pandemic, it rose to five times as many.

White Americans still make up the largest share of America's poor and those who've died from COVID-19. But Black, Hispanic and Indigenous Americans are significantly overrepresented in America's poorest counties, and COVID-19 casualty rates run significantly higher for many communities of color.

Poor Americans are hit hardest for many reasons. Since they make up a large share of low-wage, frontline workers, they're more exposed to the virus and often lack paid sick leave if they contract it. They're also more likely to lack health insurance and suffer from pre-existing conditions.

But it's not just that the poor have suffered. Equally important is that the very richest Americans have seen their wealth skyrocket.

As of this May, America's billionaires' collective wealth had ballooned by $1.7 trillion since the pandemic began, according to the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) and Americans for Tax Fairness. Elon Musk alone saw his wealth increase more than tenfold.

That's not all. In 2020, more than half of America's largest low-wage employers bent the rules to give CEOs enormous pay raises even as their essential workers suffered cuts. On average, CEOs at these firms made over $15 million—more than what their median employees would make in eight centuries.

And now, those who've benefited the most from this pandemic are trying to pull the rug out from those who've suffered the worst. They're spending big to undo some of the most important public policies our country has seen in generations.

President Joe Biden's American Rescue Plan made testing and vaccines nearly universally accessible. It also delivered stimulus payments, expanded unemployment insurance, made the Child Tax Credit more generous and increased assistance for everything from food to health insurance.

These life-saving provisions got hundreds of millions of Americans vaccinated and helped millions more weather an extremely difficult time. The expanded Child Tax Credit alone reduced child poverty by 30 percent—a stunning, if incomplete, achievement.

But billionaires, executives and corporations who've seen their fortunes flourish have poured money into the campaign coffers of politicians who oppose these measures. When Democrat Joe Manchin joined every Senate Republican in opposing the renewal and expansion of these programs—and was showered with campaign cash in return—they withered on the vine.

Now child poverty has surged, rising wages have failed to keep up with inflation and millions are at risk of losing their health insurance. So far, Congress has even failed to continue funding COVID-19 research, vaccines and testing.

Politicians catering to the extremely wealthy at the expense of the 140 million Americans who are poor or low-income is precisely what made the pandemic so deadly in the first place. We shouldn't compound the tragedy of 1 million COVID-19 deaths by letting it continue.

With midterms looming, Congress should act quickly to pass a "billionaires tax" and a windfall tax on pandemic profits—especially on industries, like oil companies, that keep hiking their prices. Lawmakers could use this money to help families meet their basic needs.

Congress should also support COVID-19 vaccination efforts at home and abroad, to prevent both needless suffering and new COVID-19 variants.

Even if Congress won't act, President Biden can. He can issue executive actions to relieve student loan debt for 43 million borrowers, lower prescription drug costs, give workers raises by increasing the overtime eligibility threshold and make it harder for companies with obscene CEO-worker pay gaps to get federal contracts.

Finally, we need a multiracial, moral movement to make the voices of real people heard over the rustling of dollar bills. On June 18, the Poor People's Campaign and thousands of supporters will rally on the National Mall for a Moral March on Washington and to the Polls on June 18. You're invited.

This pandemic has caused almost incomprehensible loss in our country. One thing we must never lose is our determination to treat its pre-existing conditions.

© 2021 Newsweek
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach, and co-chair of the the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. His books include: "The Third Reconstruction: How A Moral Movement is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear" (2016), "Revive Us Again: Vision and Action in Moral Organizing" (2018) and "We Are Called to Be a Movement" (2020). Follow him on Twitter @RevDrBarber.

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