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AOC, Schumer Finalize Plan to Cover Funeral Costs of COVID Victims Under FEMA

The lawmakers say the funds will provide much-needed relief for families already hurting from the pandemic’s impact.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks at a press conference at Corona Plaza in Queens on April 14, 2020, in New York City.

On Monday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced that people who have lost loved ones due to COVID-19 will soon be able to get reimbursed up to $7,000 for funeral costs.

The money comes out of $2 billion from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that was designated for funeral aid in December’s COVID stimulus package. The agency will be providing retroactive reimbursements for funerals from January 20, 2020, to December 31, 2020, and the lawmakers are working on extending eligibility until the pandemic is over.

“We’re glad that we’re able to provide this very, very needed relief,” said Schumer, speaking in Corona, Queens in New York, an area of the country that suffered the worst impacts of COVID. “And we will keep fighting on this issue and many other issues to make sure that the people, of New York and of the country, particularly those who don’t have the means to keep going on their own during COVID, get the help they need.”

The agency has provided funeral assistance before in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy but hasn’t provided funds of this level, CBS reports. When the president declares an emergency, FEMA funds are freed up, and the agency is authorized to assist families with funeral costs.

Ocasio-Cortez says that the issue of funeral assistance was first brought to her last year by community leaders in New York, who were seeing not only disparate impacts of COVID on poor and minority communities in the city but also the growing financial burden being placed by funeral costs. Neighborhoods in Queens, where the lawmakers spoke, were hit hard by the virus — and the zip code that houses the neighborhood of Corona at one point had the highest number of cases and deaths in an already-suffering city.

At the beginning of the pandemic, as lines in COVID outcomes were being drawn along race and class, Ocasio-Cortez said, “What we saw was that while this pandemic was hitting all of us, while we were all in the same storm, we weren’t all in the same boat.”

Working together with community leaders, she drafted a letter to FEMA along with Schumer to request funeral assistance for New York in April. In May, she expanded upon that idea and drafted legislation with Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California) to create a COVID-19 burial costs fund through FEMA.

“We know COVID-19 has a disproportionate impact on low-income communities. The absolute least we can do is to help these families bury their loved ones,” said Ocasio-Cortez in a statement at the time. “It is the very core, basic measure of human dignity. And in the richest country in the world, we should be able to allow people to bury their loved ones in dignity.”

It took months to work out the kinks — and months for Congress to produce a bill for Schumer and Ocasio-Cortez to place the proposal in — but the two lawmakers from New York were finally ready to announce the plan this month.

Ocasio-Cortez noted that those who have lost loved ones should begin collecting documentation and that everyone who might qualify should apply, including undocumented people.

“It’s completely understandable why there’s that fear there, especially over the last four years of targeting of our immigrant families,” Ocasio-Cortez said on Monday, encouraging undocumented people to apply for the aid. “But I think right now our families, especially under a Biden administration, a Democratic Senate and a Democratic House, that is prioritizing immigrant rights, including those of the undocumented, have to not have fear, and to not allow that fear to further marginalize our community.”

Ocasio-Cortez noted that funeral arrangements and costs are often monumental. “I lost my dad when I was about 18 years old. And the funeral expenses haunted and followed my family, along with many other families in a similar position, for years,” she said.

While celebrating the FEMA assistance, Ocasio-Cortez has noted that “There is so much left to do. As we fight on [Medicare for All] & more, this was a small yet crucial victory.”

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