Candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination described how they would respond to the new coronavirus outbreak and called the Trump administration unprepared at Tuesday night’s debate, hours after federal health officials warned that a nationwide spread of the virus is inevitable.
The candidates united in pledging support for the Centers for Disease Control and National Institutes of Health ― whose budgets President Donald Trump has repeatedly sought to cut ― and said the president needed to show more leadership personally.
“In the White House today, we have a self-described great genius — self-described — and this great genius has told us that this coronavirus is going to end in two months,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said of Trump. “April is the magical date that this great scientist we have in the White House has determined — I wish I was kidding. That is what he said.”
International cooperation would be key to his approach if he were president, the Vermont senator added.
“This president has not invested like he should have in his budget … he hasn’t yet really addressed the nation on this topic,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). “I would do all of that.”
Former President Barack Obama set up a White House team to deal with pandemic diseases during the Ebola crisis in 2014, former Vice President Joe Biden noted. Biden said he would replicate the Obama administration’s response and seek greater transparency from China, where the current virus, COVID-19, appeared late last year. It has since killed 2,700 people worldwide and sickened 80,000.
“I would be on the phone with China and making it clear we are going to need to be in your country, you have to be open, we have to know what’s going on, we have to be there with you and insist on it,” Biden said. “I could get that done. No one up here has ever dealt internationally with any of these world leaders ― I’m the only one that has.”
Under Trump, the CDC downsized its international collaborations to prevent the spread of epidemics starting last year because Obama-era funding had expired and the administration did not reallocate enough resources to make up for the shortfall.
Campaigns veered from the serious ― like billionaire Michael Bloomberg citing the departure of a top government global health official in 2018 and saying, “the stock markets are falling apart because people are really worried, and they should be” ― to the almost comical, as when Klobuchar made a pitch for people to regularly check the CDC website, noting that she was promoting that page instead of her own.
“What we have to do is make sure we have treatment for those Americans, and that they are in a quarantine situation. We don’t want to expose people, but we want to give them help,” Klobuchar said in response to a question about barring travel for people affected by the virus.
Trump defended himself on Twitter during the debate.
“CDC and my Administration are doing a GREAT job of handling Coronavirus, including the very early closing of our borders to certain areas of the world. It was opposed by the Dems, ‘too soon’, but turned out to be the correct decision,” he wrote. “No matter how well we do, however, the Democrats talking point is that we are doing badly. If the virus disappeared tomorrow, they would say we did a really poor, and even incompetent, job. Not fair, but it is what it is. So far, by the way, we have not had one death. Let’s keep it that way!”
News reports suggest there was confusion inside the Trump administration as the president privately pushed for measures like preventing infected Americans from returning to the U.S. and stopping some from being quarantined in Alabama because of concerns from his political allies. He is also reportedly debating how much to pressure Chinese President Xi Jinping after repeatedly suggesting Beijing had the situation under control.
Lawmakers, including Republicans, have been visibly skeptical of the Trump administration’s response to the virus as they’ve considered an emergency request for funding.
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