US Senate passes $2.2 trillion aid package as world fights coronavirus

US Senate passes $2.2 trillion aid package as world fights coronavirus

American deaths from the coronavirus pandemic have topped 1,000 in another grim milestone for a global outbreak that is taking lives and wreaking havoc on economies and day-to-day routines everywhere.

In recognition of the scale of the threat, the US Senate late on Wednesday passed an unparalleled $2.2 trillion economic rescue package steering aid to businesses, workers and health care systems.

The unanimous vote came despite misgivings on both sides of politics about whether it went too far or not far enough, and capped days of difficult negotiations as Washington confronted a national challenge unlike it has ever faced.

President Donald Trump gives his daily White House coronavirus briefing as reporters practise social distancing (Alex Brandon/AP)
President Donald Trump gives his daily White House coronavirus briefing as reporters practise social distancing (Alex Brandon/AP)

The 880-page aid package is the largest economic relief bill in US history, its value equivalent to more than half of the nation’s entire $4 trillion annual budget.

Worldwide, the death toll climbed past 21,000, according to a running count kept by Johns Hopkins University.

The number of dead in the US rose to 1,041 late on Wednesday, with nearly 70,000 infections.

Spain’s death toll has risen past 3,400, eclipsing that of China where the virus was first detected in December, after a one-day spike of 700 fatalities.

Spain’s count is now second only to that of Italy, with more than 7,500 deaths.

Lidia Perera, a nurse at Madrid’s 1,000-bed Hospital de la Paz, said more workers were desperately needed, adding: “We are collapsing.”

The Spanish parliament voted to allow the government extend strict stay-at-home rules and business closings until April 11.

An overview of air traffic across the European Union on December 18 (above) and on March 25 (below) following a drastic reduction in flights due to the coronavirus (Flightradar24,com via AP)
An overview of air traffic across the European Union on December 18 (above) and on March 25 (below) following a drastic reduction in flights due to the coronavirus (Flightradar24,com via AP)

Such measures are becoming increasingly common in the US, where New York is the current epicentre of the domestic outbreak, accounting for more than 30,000 cases and close to 300 deaths, mostly in New York City.

Public health officials in the city hunted down beds and medical equipment and put out a call for more doctors and nurses for fear the number of sick will explode in a matter of weeks, overwhelming hospitals as has happened in Italy and Spain.

A makeshift morgue was set up outside Bellevue Hospital, and the city’s police – their ranks dwindling as more fall ill – were told to patrol nearly empty streets to enforce social distancing.

In Washington, President Donald Trump has called for Americans to dedicate themselves for 15 days to social distancing, including staying home from work and closing bars and restaurants to help try to stall the spread of the disease.

Ciudadanos party deputy Maria Munoz Vidala wearing protective gloves, gestures in a nearly empty parliament in Madrid on Wednesday, when the majority of parliamentarians follow the session online, before a vote to approve the extension of the national lockdown (Mariscal/Pool/AP)
Ciudadanos party deputy Maria Munoz Vidala wearing protective gloves, gestures in a nearly empty parliament in Madrid on Wednesday, when the majority of parliamentarians follow the session online, before a vote to approve the extension of the national lockdown (Mariscal/Pool/AP)

Yet, he has also grumbled that “our country wasn’t built to be shut down”.

He has also vowed not to allow “the cure be worse than the problem”, apparently out of concern the outbreak’s devastating effects on financial markets and employment will harm his chances for re-election later this year.

“The LameStream Media is the dominant force in trying to get me to keep our Country closed as long as possible in the hope that it will be detrimental to my election success,” Trump tweeted on Wednesday.

Democrats say Mr Trump is prioritising the economy over the health and safety of Americans.

“I’d like to say, let’s get back to work next Friday,” said Joe Biden, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. ”That’d be wonderful. But it can’t be arbitrary.”

Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue is lit up with the flags of countries currently afflicted by the coronavirus (Silvia Izquierdo/AP)
Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue is lit up with the flags of countries currently afflicted by the coronavirus (Silvia Izquierdo/AP)

Elsewhere, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has also called to reopen schools and businesses. But state governors, including some of his traditional right-wing allies, are defying the call, dismissing Mr Bolsonaro’s argument that the “cure” of widespread shutdowns is worse than the disease.

Meanwhile, the governor of a state in central Mexico said the poor are “immune” to the coronavirus pandemic, even as the federal government suspended all non-essential government activities in a bid to prevent the spread of the virus.

Puebla governor Miguel Barbosa’s comment was apparently sparked by statistics showing that wealthy people who travel frequently make up a significant percentage of Mexicans infected to date, including some prominent businessmen. The country has had six deaths so far.

“The majority are wealthy people. If you are rich, you are at risk. If you are poor, no,” Barbosa said. “We poor people, we are immune.”

In other developments:

– South Korea reported 104 new cases and five more deaths, bringing its totals to 9,241 infections and 131 deaths.

– China’s National Health Commission on Thursday reported 67 new COVID-19 cases, all of which it says were imported infections in recent arrivals from abroad.

– Once again, there were no new cases reported in Wuhan, the city where the virus emerged in December. After a months-long lockdown, Wuhan residents are allowed out of the city, but cannot leave the surrounding province of Hubei until April 8.

– Citing the coronavirus, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday postponed a nationwide vote on proposed constitutional amendments that include a change potentially allowing him to stay in office until 2036. The country reported its first two deaths from the virus on Wednesday.

– The French Riviera city of Cannes opened the site of its world-famous film festival to the homeless.

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