Ro Khanna’s Bay Area district is being hit by coronavirus. He says Congress must do more
Fremont Rep. Ro Khanna’s district has been one of the hardest hit in the country by the novel coronavirus.
Santa Clara County, which covers much of Khanna’s 17th Congressional District, reported 37 cases as of Monday, the most in California. There are at least 124 cases across the state.
Khanna says Congress isn’t doing enough to stop the virus from spreading. The Chronicle spoke with him Monday about his push to increase emergency funding and quell racist sentiments during the outbreak. Here are highlights from the interview, which has been condensed for space purposes and clarity.
Q: What are you hearing from constituents, and how would you characterize the level of anxiety back home?
A: There is definitely a concern and people want to be very cautious in terms of avoiding large gatherings, in terms of keeping the same hygiene practices. So, there is definitely a heightened awareness. There is also concern that there not be discrimination against the Asian American community. I’ve made a point of going to Chinese American restaurants, of frequenting places in the district, Asian American businesses, so that there isn’t some fear based on discrimination.
Q: You’ve been adamant that the $8.3 billion funding package that Congress approved to combat the virus isn’t enough. You’ve called for $15 billion in emergency funding. Why is that a more appropriate number?
A: We need to get the tests out. Right now, only less than 1,000 people have been tested. It’s shameful that we are not able to get more people tested faster in this country. How is it that South Korea has already tested 100,000 people? So we need to figure out, how do we get inexpensive diagnostic testing out to people? That’s going to require, not just greater funding investment, but it’s also going to require the administration to partner with some of the technology leaders and startups in my district that are working on this issue. I have called for the convening of leading scientists, doctors, tech leaders in D.C.
Q: In terms of that concern with testing, what should already have been done to fix the problem?
A: What we ought to have done is set great transparency. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) removed the number of tests they were doing from their website. I asked the deputy secretary of Health and Human Services (Eric Hargan) why that was the case in the budget hearing a few days ago, and urged them to have greater transparency in reporting that.
We need to do more, proactively, on getting testing to be universal. The fact that South Korea has been able to do it, the fact that other countries have been able to do it, it’s a real scandal that we haven’t been able to do it in this country.
Q: You’ve said Congress should pass legislation guaranteeing paid sick leave for all workers. Why do you think that’s so crucial right now to stop the spread of the virus?
A: Because we don’t want people who are sick coming to work out of economic necessity. It’s common sense that we ought to be paying people for staying at home if they’re sick, so that they don’t spread the virus.
The second thing we ought to do: I’ve called for temporarily extending Medicare coverage to anyone, for a primary care visit or for an emergency visit, at least for three to six months. Let’s make sure that people are not staying home and avoiding care because of cost. I support single-payer (health care), but even if you don’t want to go to a policy of single-payer, at least let people get treated on a three- to six-month basis while we’re dealing with this outbreak.
Q: Do you fear that the lack of these basic safety-net protections makes America more vulnerable than parts of Europe or other countries facing the outbreak?
A: It does. We are more vulnerable because we don’t have the testing. We’re more vulnerable because there’s a medical expense to getting basic care. We’re more vulnerable because people feel the need to come to work even if they are sick. We are more vulnerable because we don’t have adequate coordination with the public sector and the private sector in tackling both prevention and a cure.
Q: You’ve been vocal, throughout this crisis, about the need to combat racism and xenophobia. What message do you want constituents to hear in that respect?
A: That they should not stereotype Asian American businesses, Asian American restaurants, Asian American shopping centers as places to avoid. That is not based on science. It’s not based on evidence. It’s not based on the facts. The reality is there is not a higher prevalence of this virus in Asian American communities than there is in any community.
People should take the necessary precautions. They should avoid large gatherings. They should wash their hands. They should avoid being in close proximity to someone who is sick. But they should not make stereotyped decisions based on profiling individuals.
Q: Is there a particular aspect or fact that you think hasn’t received enough attention in this crisis?
A: The fact that this is a containable and manageable situation, but it has exposed weaknesses in our government’s ability to respond.