Bernie Sanders: 'If you're a multimillionaire ... you're going to get through' the coronavirus pandemic

Democratic presidential hopeful Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders participates in the 11th Democratic Party 2020 presidential debate in a CNN Washington Bureau studio in Washington, DC on March 15, 2020.
Mandel Ngan | Getty Images

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders used Sunday night's debate with former Vice President Joe Biden to emphasize the consequences of the wealth gap in America, this time illustrating that it's better to be rich in the United States in the time of a pandemic. 

"If you're a multimillionaire — no one is happy about this crisis — you're going to get through it," Sanders said Sunday from the CNN-Univision Democratic presidential debate in Washington D.C., referring to the spreading COVID-19 pandemic in the United States and around the world.

But people who live paycheck to paycheck have some hard decisions to make. 

"We have more income and wealth inequality in America today than any time in 100 years," Sanders said. (Indeed, a 2019 paper on wealth inequality by University of California at Berkeley economist Gabriel Zucman found that U.S. wealth concentration levels are at levels not seen since the "roaring" 1920's.)

And for the wealthy, when it comes to coronavirus, "you're going to get everything you need. You're not worried about health care. You're not worried about income coming in," Sanders said.

As many businesses have moved employees to work from home in an effort to "flatten-the-curve," for the wealthy it's an inconvenience, but telecommuting is not possible for many hourly workers and those whose jobs are location dependent. Other businesses, from Disneyland to many restaurants and bars, have shut down. 

"Half of our people are living paycheck to paycheck. We've got people who are struggling working two or three jobs to put food on the table. What is going to happen to them?" Sanders said. (According to one 2017 survey, 78 percent of U.S. workers live paycheck to paycheck to make ends meet.)

"As a result of the virus here, the coronavirus, what we have got to do also is understand the fragility of the economy and how unjust and unfair it is that so few have so much and so many have so little," Sanders said.

It is true that being rich makes surviving the coronavirus pandemic easier, Jon Zelner, a professor at the Department of Epidemiology Center for Social Epidemiology and Population Health at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, tells CNBC Make It on Monday. 

Being rich "certainly increases your likelihood of being fine," Zelner tells CNBC Make It.

"The more wealth, but also social power, you have, the more likely you are to be able to work from home, not work without fear of losing your home, get/hold on to exclusive childcare and seek early diagnosis and treatment," Zelner says.

Take COVID-19 testing, for instance. While many sick Americans struggle (often unsuccessfully) to find a way to get a single test for themselves, the NBA's Utah Jazz was able to get 58 tests for COVID-19 after a player tested positive for the virus. And Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz from Florida was able to get a test at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center without having symptoms but after he interacted with someone who later tested positive for the virus. (An Oklahoma State Department of Health official told USA Today Sports that it was a "public health decision" and that the NBA did not receive special treatment. The office of Congressman Gaetz pointed CNBC Make It to a tweet from Gaetz: "I was specifically told by [White House] medical staff that I was NOT being tested because I am in Congress — but because I had been in close contact with President Trump over several days. Of course we have a national interest in keeping the President safe.")

When not working means not being able to pay your bills, staying home and away from people to "flatten the curve" becomes a complicated decision, Zelner says. 

"Not all people have the ability to distance themselves without facing major repercussions. If those include losing your job and home, your ability to care for your kids and family, those concerns are greater than being temporarily ill," Zelner says. (Of course, the call to participate in "social distancing" is also about limiting the spread of the virus to others who are especially vulnerable.)

The fact that so many Americans have to make such a choice is sign that the U.S. economy could improve its care for those with less, Zelner says.

"When people on the margins are forced into positions where they are at-risk of infection and transmission, it is not an example of their moral or ethical failure, but instead a society and government that doesn't understand that a strong social safety net is protective for all."

As for Biden, he didn't disagree with Sanders' assessment but emphasized that "people are looking for results, not a revolution," he said, Sunday. "They want to deal with the results they need right now.

"That has nothing to do with the legitimate concern about income inequality in America. That's real," said Biden. "But that does not affect the need for us to act swiftly and very thoroughly and in concert with all of the forces that we need to bring to bear to deal with the crisis now so no one is thrown out of their home."

Other lawmakers and thought leaders have raised the idea of distributing free cash in the form of a "universal basic income" to Americans to get through the pandemic has been getting increased attention.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump applauded the U.S. House of Representatives passing a bill on Friday night that is designed to increase access to COVID-19 testing and paid sick leave. The bill "provides paid sick and family medical leave for those who need it, including for those who have the virus, for caregivers, and those looking after children affected by school closures," Trump said in a press briefing on Saturday.

That legislation, however, only provides paid sick leave to about 20% of workers, because large companies and small are left out of the requirement, as The New York Times points out. "Sick workers should stay home, but there is no guarantee in the emergency legislation that most of them will get paid," The New York Times editorial board said.

The bill goes to the Senate this week. 

While the coronavirus has given presidential candidates fresh fodder to speak about wealth inequality in the United States, the wealth gap has been a driving issue for the Democratic candidates running for the White House.

This story has been updated to include a response from the office of Sen. Gaetz. 

See also: 

Andrew Yang, AOC, Harvard professor: Free cash payments would help during coronavirus pandemic

Why wealth inequality is driving Democrats in the 2020 election

Global wealth inequality is 'founded on sexism,' says Oxfam International

Elon Musk and Andrew Yang support Universal Basic Income — here's what it could mean for Americans
Here's what universal basic income could mean for Americans