For Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is highlighting fault lines that she says many of her constituents were already experiencing before the virus manifested in their communities.
Five of the nation’s hardest hit zip codes are in the New York congresswoman’s district which covers a portion of the Bronx and areas of Queens, and Ocasio-Cortez says many of the people she represents were more adversely affected by the virus because many of them work jobs that are deemed “essential,” thereby increasing their risk of exposure.
“To me, an essential worker is any person in this country that is helping keep the lights on and helping us live day by day,” Ocasio-Cortez said in an interview with "Nightline" co-anchor Juju Chang.
“The great irony of essential workers is that they have typically been underpaid, under-recognized and under-valued in our economy, and if there’s one thing that this crisis shows us it’s that our essential workers deserve so much more,” she added.
Ocasio-Cortez, who has described inequality as a "preexisting condition" in the past, told ABC News that the social divisions brought forth by the pandemic are also rooted in the socioeconomic barriers some people earning a lower income face when attempting to gain access to preventative care and pay for prescriptions. As an ardent supporter of Medicare for All, the New York congresswoman says those hurdles are now bolstering support for the single-payer health care system.
“We all live in our own worlds and sometimes it’s hard to see experiences outside of our own, but I think one silver lining to this crisis is that people are now recognizing the inequities that have been here all along -- people saying, ‘wow, I didn’t know it was this bad,’” she said.
The idea of “Medicare for All” was a frequent topic of debate on the 2020 campaign trail, as a cornerstone policy of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign. Ocasio-Cortez backed Sanders in the primary, and like Sanders, says she politically identifies as a Democratic Socialist. While Ocasio-Cortez acknowledges that for some the word “socialist” is a “dirty word”, she also points to a historically-based generational divide that is pushing political divisions into modern times.
“I think what’s important for us to talk about is the generational tide that exists around these conversations -- I was born at the end of 1989, there was no Cold War virtually the entire time I’ve been alive,” she said.
Sanders suspended his campaign in early April and subsequently threw his support behind former Vice President Joe Biden. In a joint video appearance with Biden, Sanders -- who was the candidate of choice for many progressives -- made a call for unity within the Democratic party and urged all Democrats to come together to defeat President Trump.
Since then, the former rivals announced the formation of six joint unity task forces which will “explore possible policy initiatives” including climate change, criminal justice reform, the economy, education, health care, and immigration policy. Ocasio-Cortez is among the notable names included in the task forces and is co-chairing a group that will mold Biden’s climate policy. The 30-year-old Congresswoman will work alongside former Secretary of State John Kerry, who was also active on the 2020 campaign trail as a surrogate for Biden.
When asked by ABC News if she plans to endorse Biden, the freshman congresswoman and star of the progressive wing deflected, and instead highlighted the need for party unity.
“You are saying something that's very important, which is the fact that we must come together as a party and we must beat Donald Trump at the polls this November," Ocasio-Cortez said. "And that requires a very strong and thorough process of coming together, where Vice President Biden says, not just, some commercials to young people with some rock stars and say vote, but that we are actually speaking to the needs of young people, to progressive folks in this country, to everybody."
While she said she is "honored" that Sen. Bernie Sanders and Biden invited her to co-chair the climate change task force, she also said she is encouraging him and his team to “find ways to surprise us.”
"I believe that the vice president is willing to go places on policy to show that he's willing to listen and show that he's willing to be adaptive to our needs,” she said.
The New York congresswoman says voters do not support candidates “just because of their personalities” and pointed back to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ former campaign slogan as a launchpad for bringing constituencies together.
"Bernie always said this: not me, us. And what that means is that we support a plan and an agenda that addresses our future," she said.
As the Biden campaign begins to focus on picking a running mate to join the former vice president on the ticket, Ocasio-Cortez gave some insight into what characteristics she would like to see in his own vice presidential nominee, including whether he should pick a woman of color for the job.
“I think it would be an enormous stride to have a female and a woman of color as a vice presidential nominee," she said.
"To me, what is most important is the policy. So it's not just do we check off these boxes, but also what does that woman believe? And I would love for us to have a vice president that believes and pushes for health care as a human right, that pushes for a living wage, that pushes for, you know, tuition free public colleges and universities,” she added.
Ultimately, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez says she would “love to see the vice president pick someone that he knows is going to push him.”
“I think that that's what a good vice president does, that they are honest. They provide a countervailing opinion when they believe that it's necessary,” she added.
As the 2020 campaign continues to unfold against the backdrop of the pandemic, Ocasio-Cortez says President Trump’s response has been “an utter disaster on the federal level.”
“He has been contributing to the health inequities by targeting communities like ours. He's made people afraid to go to the doctor because they are concerned that ICE will pick them up in the E.R.,” she said.
The congresswoman also says the federal government’s lagging response in providing testing for coronavirus adversely affected the ability of many minority communities to prepare to combat the virus.
“You have all of these workers that we rely on and few of them are getting tested, but [they are] still going to work because they are so economically desperate,” she said.
With unemployment numbers nearing Depression-era levels and economic anxieties continuing to sweep the nation, the perilous state of the economy has some lawmakers, including President Trump, advocating for the reopening of states despite concerns over safety recommendations from health experts. On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released more detailed guidance on how states can safely allow businesses and schools to reopen their doors during the coronavirus pandemic. The guidance outlines a number of "decision tools" for businesses, workplaces, schools and childcare programs to examine before reopening, but the overall guidance is voluntary and may be difficult to assess for some businesses.
Asked by ABC News to weigh in on the debate over reopening, Ocasio-Cortez says it is "extraordinarily unfortunate" that the topic has become a partisan issue.
"It really ultimately comes down to paying attention to the scientists or not. It's not about reopening your state, and reopening your city shouldn't be about whether you're a Democrat or Republican. It should be about whether it is safe. And our policies should be aligning with what public health experts say," she said.
Despite the struggles facing the country as a whole, Ocasio-Cortez says Americans are “disconnected” rather than “divided.”
“I don't feel, for example, divided from folks who are Republicans in this country, I feel that we are profoundly disconnected where people do not feel listened to,” she said.
“If we realize that we are all in this together, we can create a health care system that reflects that truth. We can create a wage system that reflects that truth. We can - we can see each other in a way that reflects that truth,” she added.
This report is part of “Pandemic – A Nation Divided,” ABC News' special coverage of the heightened racial/ethnic and socioeconomic disparities amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Tune into "Nightline" for a three-day series starting tonight, 12 a.m. ET on ABC.