'People Are Afraid': Sen. Kamala Harris on What the Government Should Do About Coronavirus & Life in One of the Epicenters
California Sen. Kamala Harris, whose state has been an epicenter of the virus, talks to PEOPLE about the "real kindness" from people coming together and the government response she'd like to see
As California last week ordered its approximately 40 million residents to stay at home unless absolutely necessary in an effort to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, one of the state’s U.S. senators says its small businesses and hourly workers need help — from anywhere they can get it.
In an interview with PEOPLE, Sen. Kamala Harris talked about the “real kindness” she’s seen, the problems she has with the Trump administration’s response so far and the work still to be done.
“We’re in the midst of a pandemic and people are afraid,” she says. “People are concerned about the health and well-being of their family members and themselves and adjusting to a new way of life, including working from home, including home-schooling, including social distancing and what that means.”
As of Monday afternoon more than 15,000 people had died worldwide because of the coronavirus, which causes the respiratory disease COVID-19. That includes more than 450 people in America. There were more than 1,800 confirmed cases in California, according to a New York Times tracker, and 33 deaths.
The virus has required a near-standstill across much of society: school buildings closed as classes go online; businesses shuttered or having employees work remotely, restaurants turning to takeout and delivery only — all in an effort to slow the virus’ spread as health officials urge the public to avoid group gatherings and to stay at home so hospitals aren’t overwhelmed while work continues on treatments and a vaccine.
As the virus’ death toll rises, so too does the economic upheaval in its wake.
Harris, 55, tells PEOPLE local individuals and groups have stepped up in U.S. communities this month, some creating relief funds to help those who now find themselves out of work.
The National Domestic Workers Alliance, an advocacy group that represents in-home jobs like nannies, house cleaners and at-home caregivers, is one of the leading organization efforts she’s seen.
“Most of those workers do not have unemployment insurance, they don’t have paid sick leave, they don’t have paid family leave,” says Harris. “So the Domestic Workers Alliance has created what they have named the Coronavirus Care Fund so that people can donate so that these workers who are doing such important work, so they have a fund that they can rely on to help them get through the hardship of these moments. It’s real kindness.”
She also lauds grocery stores around the country, including in California, that are “opening early for seniors-only shopping, knowing that our seniors are more susceptible and vulnerable in terms of the public health crisis, so they can have their time to go in and shop and not be exposed to other people and while the stores are clean.”
Harris also tells this story: “I was talking to a friend, this was last week, she was in the grocery store — this is when it started and people were starting early to stock up — and the line was out the door of the grocery store and there was an elderly lady like three carts behind her and they had all been standing in line for an hour and this elderly woman just had a few things.”
“So my friend invited the elderly woman to come in front of her, because then she wouldn’t have to wait as long. And one person griped, ‘Why are you doing that?’ ” Harris recalls. “And she spoke up and said, ‘We have to be kind and we have to take care of each other,’ at which point everyone else in the line just applauded.”
The efforts to adjust to a temporary new way of life and make “work from home” a reality have been widespread, since the virus uprooted American daily life earlier this month.
Musicians around the country, who largely depend on live performances, have pooled efforts by creating donation-based virtual concerts and live-streamed at-home “festivals.” Celebrity chefs such as José Andrés have made their high-end meals available for less than $10 to help provide for local communities.
Some service industry workers have already moved back home with their parents, while others are lending money to friends and relief funds to help others make rent and buy food.
The New York Times reports that unemployment claims have surged.
“There’s a lot of adjustment that people are making, pretty drastic adjustments that individuals were not prepared to make and shouldn’t have had to be prepared to make,” Harris says. “Now, it’s a different point about what our government should’ve been prepared to deal with.”
Trump changed his tone in recent days about the virus, after earlier downplaying it compared to the seasonal flu and suggesting it would go away after his administration restricted travelers from China, where the virus first emerged late last year.
The federal government has also come under much scrutiny for various problems that hampered the distribution of coronavirus testing, undercutting the ability of health officials to contain and mitigate infections
“I felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic,” Trump claimed last week.
On Sunday, he said, “For those worried and afraid, please know: As long as I am your president, you can feel confident that you have a leader who will always fight for you, and I will not stop until we win. This will be a great victory. This is going to be a victory. And it’s going to be a victory that, in my opinion, will happen much sooner than originally expected.”
Harris describes it differently.
“Working in Washington, D.C., we have to get through this,” she says. “But it is absolutely outrageous that we were so slow and frankly that the administration was so slow to recognize the seriousness of the moment and act swiftly and quickly and with a sense of urgency.”
Harris voted along with a large bipartisan majority last week to pass the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which extended paid sick leave for some Americans.
Some said the bill, which passed the Senate on Wednesday and was signed into law by President Trump later that night, came too late. Most service industry workers who could have been helped by the bill were already laid off and faced unemployment, critics and employment analysis said.
Harris had just left a meeting with about 50 of her fellow Democratic Senators when she spoke with PEOPLE late last week.
“I’m seeing great leadership coming out of some members of the Congress, but the administration really has dropped the ball,” she says.
Another, even larger relief bill is still being hashed out between the Senate and House of Representatives, with major differences between Democrats and Republicans.
“I’m in Washington D.C. I’m not leaving until we get these bills passed to bring some relief to folks,” Harris says.
Describing her own priorities, she says, “One of [them] is to make sure that we have bridge loans to small businesses so that they will be able to stay in business, knowing that small businesses are often part of the lifeblood of any community. One of my areas of concern is to make sure in the midst of all this that we protect consumers from fraud …. We should suspend penalties for missed payments, that there should not be negative consumer credit reporting during this time, right? Because that would just put people deep in a hole when most people are not able to work right now and they shouldn’t be penalized in the long term for that.”
In the U.S., there have been more than 39,000 confirmed cases of the virus as of Monday afternoon.
California, New York and Washington are among the states that have seen the most infections.
Health officials say most cases are mild but the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions like autoimmune diseases are more vulnerable. Younger people are at still at risk, however, and health experts and government officials have openly worried about them spreading the disease if they don’t listen to warnings to stay at home and practice social distancing.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading infectious disease expert on Trump’s coronavirus task force team, warned Americans on Friday that quarantine efforts to help stop the spread of the virus still have weeks to go — at least.
“If you look at the trajectory of the curves of outbreaks and other areas, [it’s] at least going to be several weeks,” Fauci said in an interview on Today. “I cannot see that all of a sudden, next week or two weeks from now it’s going to be over. I don’t think there’s a chance of that. I think it’s going to be several weeks.”
To prevent the spread of the virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages maintaining basic forms of hygiene including careful hand washing, avoiding touching the face, moving away from people who are coughing or sneezing and staying home at signs of illness.
As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments and visit our coronavirus hub.