US must improve COVID-19 strategy to keep millions from falling into poverty: UN expert

United Nations:  The US must take urgent additional steps to prevent tens of millions of middle-class Americans hit by the COVID-19 pandemic from plunging into poverty, an independent UN human rights expert has said.

UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Philip Alston has warned that significant portions of America will soon face destitution unless Congress takes “far-reaching” actions.

“Low-income and poor people face far higher risks from the coronavirus due to chronic neglect and discrimination, and a muddled, corporate-driven, federal response [that] has failed them,” said Alston, who made a fact-finding visit to the US in 2017.

He painted a grim picture of record layoffs, a weak safety net, and a government “focusing primarily on businesses and the well-off”.

On March 27, President Donald Trump signed into law a historic USD 2 trillion emergency relief package which made its way through Congress, to provide stopgap funding for workers, small businesses and industry, impacted by the need to lockdown much of the country to halt the transmission of the COVID-19.

The US must take urgent additional steps to prevent tens of millions of middle-class Americans hit by the COVID-19 pandemic from being “plunged into poverty”, he said.

Over a four-week period, more than 22 million people have filed for unemployment and US Federal Reserve economists reportedly project up to 47 million job losses through the summer.

Food bank use is skyrocketing and almost a third of housing tenants in the US reportedly did not pay April’s rent on time.

The independent expert said that people in poverty were disproportionately threatened by the coronavirus.

“They are more likely to work in jobs with a high risk of exposure, live in crowded and insecure housing, reside in neighbourhoods that are more vulnerable because of air pollution, and lack access to healthcare. Communities of colour, who face a persistent racial wealth gap, are at particular risk and are dying at much higher rates,” he said.

The poor have fewer resources to cushion economic blows and are more susceptible to mass layoffs and pay cuts. And low-income children have less capacity to access classes online, Alston said.

“Despite these severe risks, federal relief is not yet reaching many people in need and is fundamentally inadequate in scope and kind given the magnitude of the crisis and its longer-term impact,” Alston said, noting that one-time payments not only provide less than a month’s living wage but also exclude millions of taxpaying undocumented immigrants.

More than half of workers were left out of sick leave legislation, the Special Rapporteur highlighted; student debt relief excludes the millions who borrowed from private companies; and despite tens of millions of people lacking insurance, no comprehensive steps have been taken to cover medical treatment, Alston said.

He called for “accessible, affordable treatment” to ensure that when a coronavirus vaccine does become available, it is not rolled out first to the wealthy f and “only eventually” to those most at risk.

“Poor people will be harmed if Congress continues to deny meaningful assistance to state and local governments, which are considering cuts to services like public transportation, education, legal aid and healthcare,” he said.

Even before the crisis, an estimated two in five Americans could not cover a USD 400 expense without going into debt, and according to the US Census Bureau, in 2018, 38.1 million people lived in poverty.

Flagging that poor Americans have “abysmally insecure working conditions, low pay and unaffordable rents,” Alston also indicated that they lacked guarantees normal in most developed countries, such as the universal healthcare.

The independent UN expert urged the US to provide immediate further relief, such as rental assistance and debt suspension, as well as long-term solutions, including a green stimulus package and student debt cancellation.

“This is a moment to re-evaluate failing health, housing and social support systems that have made this crisis especially painful for the less well-off,” he said.

Special Rapporteurs are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation.

According to data maintained by Johns Hopkins University, Over 35,000 people have died in the US and the country has 701,131 infections, the highest in the world.

A total of 154,142 people have died and 2,242,868 people have been infected by the novel coronavirus that originated in China in November last year, according to the varsity data.

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