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Should the U.S. Compensate Victims of COVID-19?

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With over 560,000 COVID-19-related deaths and counting, the pandemic has decimated families all over the country. The total U.S. death toll has now exceeded that of WWII, which claimed the lives of 405,399 Americans.

The cost of losing a loved one to COVID-19 can be difficult to comprehend. On top of the grief and emotional despair, every casualty can lead to a loss in income, exorbitant medical bills, and financial instability.

That’s why many people believe the U.S. should start compensating victims for these losses, so surviving family members have the resources they need to rebuild their lives.

Historical Precedent for Compensating Victims

Advocates of this idea don’t have to go too far out of their way to find a similar situation in history. Just 11 days after the September 11th terrorist attacks in New York, President George W. Bush signed the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund into law.

During the initial rollout, the fund provided up to $20,000 to those injured during the attacks and $50,000 to the families of those who were killed. The fund has since been expanded to include first responders who suffered related injuries, including those who breathed in toxic fumes at the base of the fallen towers.

The program was unanimously praised by both Democrats and Republicans alike, so why doesn’t the U.S. create something similar for COVID-19?

The sheer scale of the program would dwarf anything that came before it; 2,977 Americans died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which is just a sliver of how many people have succumbed to COVID-19. During January of 2021, 3,000 people were dying from the virus every day, according to NPR.

How Would It Work?

Handing out payments to hundreds of thousands of Americans wouldn’t be easy. The U.S. has already passed trillions of dollars in economic relief, but advocates say more money is needed to help people who have lost a loved one get back on their feet.

Individuals would have to prove that the virus has affected their finances and the health of their loved ones. It’s also impossible to say exactly how much the disease has affected everyone’s bank accounts.

Economists believe the first 100,000 pandemic deaths cost the U.S. $1.4 trillion.

Nearly everyone who died from the virus was of working age, but making up for lost income doesn’t tell the full story. The pandemic has disproportionately affected low-income Americans and the working class. Studies show around two-thirds of everyone who died in the U.S. of COVID-19 was making $55,000 or less per year.

Several state lawmakers from New York have proposed setting up a COVID-19 compensation fund for victims of the disease and their families, but none have gathered the support they need for it to become law.

The Federal Emergency Management Administration recently set up a COVID-19 Funeral Assistance program to help surviving family members lay their loved ones to rest.

Starting April 12th, families that lost a loved one to the virus can apply for up to $9,000 in reimbursement to help cover funeral expenses.

The Health Resources & Services Administration also has a fund in place to help support victims of the pandemic, but the Countermeasures Injury Compensation Program (CICP) only covers treatments related to COVID-19, not death or injury.

A Gateway to Poverty

Studies show that 79 million Americans have accumulated medical bills and/or debt, and the pandemic has only made things worse.

William Arnone, CEO of the National Academy of Social Insurance, says a death in the family can lead to a lifetime of financial insecurity. “Death is a gateway to poverty for many people,” he said.

Just over half of Americans have a life insurance policy, which means many families and households don’t have a safety net in place, should they lose a loved one.

“If the goal of a civilized nation is to prevent suffering…you would think there would be something to meet this need, which is now exacerbated,” Arnone added.

Administrative Hurdles

Kenneth Feinberg, who ran the NYC 9/11 Victims Fund, admits that any such program would be difficult to administer. “Who is eligible? How much money will they get? What’s the source of the funds? What proof is required to determine the eligibility?” he said. “The operational nightmares lead me to conclude that…Congress and the administration have wisely determined that that’s probably not doable.”

Creating a compensation fund would also lead to questions of who’s to blame for the pandemic. Victims of the 9/11 terrorist attack had to sign away their right to sue the airlines involved in order to receive their compensation funds.

Assigning blame for a pandemic is more complicated. Samantha Montano, assistant professor of emergency management at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, says, “This virus is natural. The fact that it had the effect on us that it did is not natural. It’s a product of decisions made by elected officials. That starts to open the door to argue for a compensation fund.”

We may not get a COVID-19 compensation fund anytime soon, but the victims of the pandemic will continue to make their voices heard.

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