Congress is trying to figure out what to do about coronavirus on two levels: There’s the doing-its-job level of responding with legislation to protect the entire country, and there’s the personal fear level, with the many elderly members of Congress worried about their own health.
COVID-19 is most dangerous to older people and those with health conditions, and two-thirds of the Senate is over age 60, with 25% over age 70. House members have an average age of 57.6. Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Paul Gosar are currently in self-quarantine after interacting with a Conservative Political Action Conference attendee who later was diagnosed with coronavirus. But Speaker Nancy Pelosi is, in consultation with the Capitol physician, keeping the Capitol open to visitors and keeping the House in session to do its work—because what Congress will do is the bigger question.
“We are hoping to work with the administration on a coordinated, government-wide plan to respond to the coronavirus,” Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement, before going on to express concern that Donald Trump “continues to manufacture needless chaos within his administration and it is hampering the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.”
Pelosi and Schumer called on Trump to work with Democrats on an agenda to protect the working people of the United States from devastation. That means “clear standards and sufficient distribution of necessary protective equipment for health care and other workers” exposed to coronavirus patients—including the workers who clean affected buildings—as well as “widespread and free” testing for the disease, affordable treatment for sick people, protections against price-gouging, and increasing capacity in the medical system so that there are enough hospital beds and healthcare workers.
But an effective response doesn’t stop there. It also means paid sick leave, so that workers don’t face the choice between going to work sick and infecting other people or doing the responsible thing of staying home, but losing pay as a result. The way we keep this thing from spreading is for sick people to stay home, but people who can’t feed their families or stay housed if they don’t go to work won’t be able to do that. A decent and humane coronavirus response also means expanding food aid and making sure that unemployment benefits “are available and sufficient for workers who may lose their jobs from the economic impacts of the epidemic.” Otherwise, even people who don’t get sick may be devastated by the outbreak.
Trump is freaking out about the markets, but for working people, these measures are at least as important when we talk about the economic impact of coronavirus.