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US COVID-19 strategy failing the poor, says UN expert

16 April 2020

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GENEVA (16 April 2020) – The poor in the United States are being hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic and the Government must urgently take additional steps to prevent tens of millions of middle-class Americans from being plunged into poverty, a UN human rights expert said today.

“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 has failed them,” said Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights who made a fact-finding visit to the United States in 2017.

“With record layoffs, a weak safety net, and the Government focusing primarily on businesses and the well-off, significant portions of the country will soon face destitution unless Congress takes far-reaching action,” the independent expert said.

More than 22 million people filed for unemployment in a four-week period, and Federal Reserve economists project up to 47 million lost jobs by summer. Almost a third of US renters reportedly did not pay rent on time in April and food bank use is skyrocketing.

“People in poverty are 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,” he said. “Communities of colour, who face a persistent racial wealth gap, are at particular risk and are dying at much higher rates.”

The poor have fewer resources to cushion the economic effects and are more adversely affected by measures to slow the spread of the virus, the Special Rapporteur noted. Low-paid workers are more susceptible to mass layoffs and pay cuts, while fewer low-income children can access classes online.

“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.

“The one-time payments provide less than a month’s living wage, may not reach some of the least well-off until September, and exclude millions of taxpaying undocumented immigrants by design,” he said. “The temporary expansion of unemployment insurance is reliant on overwhelmed state offices, resulting in widespread delays.”

More than half of workers were left out of sick leave legislation, and student debt relief excludes millions of borrowers with loans from private companies. No comprehensive steps have been taken to cover medical treatment despite tens of millions having no insurance and intensive care costs as high as US$70,000.

“Accessible, affordable treatment is essential, and planning should begin now to ensure that any vaccine is made available widely and fairly, not rolled out first to the wealthy and only eventually to those most at risk,” Alston said.

“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.

“The response has also ignored the looming threat of climate change, and despite the risks that pollution and carbon emissions pose to poor communities, the Environmental Protection Agency has ceased enforcement of many reporting and monitoring regulations.”

The American cash bail system also means that many detainees are held because they can’t pay. “As the coronavirus spreads in overcrowded and unsanitary prisons, jails and detention centers, even trivial offences can be a death sentence,” Alston said. “While some authorities have implemented common sense releases, others, such as in Texas and New York, have doubled-down on cash bail.”

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

“Poor people in the US already have abysmally insecure working conditions, low pay, and unaffordable rents, and enjoy few of the guarantees that are the norm in most developed countries such as universal healthcare. The country could use its significant wealth to resolve many of these issues, but a response that favors corporate interests and entrenches inequality will be catastrophic.

“The United States should provide immediate relief, such as rental assistance and suspensions of debt collection and evictions, as well as long-term solutions to protect rights and combat insecurity, such as a green stimulus, a living wage and cancellation of student debt. 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,” the Special Rapporteur said.


Philip Alston (Australia) took up his functions as the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights in June 2014. As a Special Rapporteur, he is part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council's independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures' experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

Follow the Special Rapporteur on Twitter @Alston_UNSR and Facebook at

For more information and media requests, please contact Junko Tadaki at: [email protected]

For media enquiries regarding other UN independent experts, please contact Xabier Celaya (+ 41 22 917 9445 / [email protected])

Follow news related to the UN’s independent human rights experts on Twitter @UN_SPExperts.

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