Rep. Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan (D-CNMI), Vice Chair for Insular Affairs, is the co-author of this Op-Ed.
U.S. territories, where health infrastructure is weaker than most mainland facilities and local governments are facing serious financial challenges, have already reported several COVID-19 fatalities and dozens of cases. Government officials and residents of the territories are justifiably worried that an inadequate federal pandemic response will lead to preventable loss of life on a scale that – because of recent disasters – they’ve unfortunately already seen in the recent past.
As leaders of the House Committee on Natural Resources, we’ve been working closely with our congressional colleagues and community organizations to ensure the needs of the U.S. territories and their nearly 4 million residents are met during this alarming period. We’re pushing our fellow lawmakers to include sufficient funding and support for Puerto Rico, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), and American Samoa in upcoming emergency and relief response efforts, and we’re urging them to take seriously the consequences of another failure like the one we saw from the Trump administration after Hurricane María.
In a recent conversation with Committee staff, Marcos Santana, executive director of the Network for the Rights of Children and Youth of Puerto Rico, shared a story he hoped our colleagues in Congress will take to heart. A homeless couple he knows lost their house to Hurricane María in 2017, and they’re now expecting a child. They live in the southern region of the island, where hundreds of earthquakes caused significant damage earlier this year. Fortunately, Santana’s organization has found them provisional housing during the outbreak, but they have struggled to find adequate medical care or protect themselves from the pandemic, and the island-wide lockdown declared earlier this month has made it more difficult.
The important thing for our colleagues, and the wider public, to consider is that these expectant parents are not just unlucky. Their circumstances would be much more bearable with a functional federal disaster response and adequate support for Puerto Rico and the other U.S. territories. To learn more about how widespread these kinds of cases are, and to monitor the COVID-19 situation in the U.S. territories as closely as possible, the Committee is now seeking responses to a new online survey for government officials and residents to share observations, concerns and recommendations for pandemic response. The more information we gather directly from impacted communities, the greater the chance that Congress listens.
Both pandemic response laws passed earlier this month – the Coronavirus Preparedness and Response Supplemental Appropriations Act (H.R.6074) and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (H.R. 6201) – include funding for U.S. territories, which is a good start. H.R. 6074 allows the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to assign funding to territories for case identification, laboratory testing, infection control, and the purchase of equipment and supplies. H.R. 6201 provides an additional $100 million in nutritional assistance grants for Puerto Rico, CNMI, and American Samoa and increases the Medicaid allotment for territories.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (H.R.748), expected to become law this week, is a good start for territorial relief. It treats U.S. territories as states for the purpose of accessing CDC funding and the federal Disaster Relief Fund, and it assigns $200 million in nutritional assistance for Puerto Rico, CNMI, and American Samoa during the emergency. It includes $55 million for the Department of the Interior to extend technical assistance to U.S. territories and Freely Associated States through its Office of Insular Affairs.
Nevertheless, more steps need to be taken as soon as possible. It is not clear how direct assistance payments for individuals and applications for unemployment insurance in the territories will be processed. In addition to providing clarity on that crucial question, Congress should expand block grants and tax credit programs to the territories and waive matching fund requirements of federal programs for territories experiencing proven economic hardship. We should protect essential public services in Puerto Rico, such as health care services and the epidemiological research conducted by the University of Puerto Rico, from fiscal austerity by amending the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act.
The pandemic has not just highlighted the cracks in what we think of as everyday life. It’s put a bright spotlight on many communities we’ve ignored, neglected and conveniently forgotten about. Allowing millions of Americans across the country to live in poverty, with substandard housing and medical care, was always a policy choice, not an inevitable economic necessity, and the cost of that choice in human lives is now going up every day. We are concerned that that will be especially true for residents of the territories. Congress must not ignore them any longer.