In a recognition of the scale of the threat, the US Senate late 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 about whether it goes too far or not far enough and capped days of difficult negotiations as Washington confronted a national challenge unlike it has ever faced. The 880-page measure is the largest economic relief bill in US history.
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 as of late 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 over 7,500 deaths. Lidia Perera, a nurse at Madrid’s 1,000-bed Hospital de la Paz, said more workers were desperately needed. “We are collapsing,” Perera said.
The Spanish parliament voted to allow the government extend strict stay-at-home rules and business closings until April 11.
Such measures are becoming increasingly common in the US, where New York is the current epicenter of the domestic outbreak, accounting for more than 30,000 cases and close to 300 deaths, most of them 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.
Yet, he’s also grumbled that “our country was not built to be shut down” and vowed not to allow “the cure be worse than the problem” – apparently concerned that 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 Wednesday.
Democrats say that Trump was prioritizing 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 not be arbitrary.”
Biden said the congressional aid package addressing the outbreak “goes a long way,” but that “meticulous oversight” is required.
“We are going to need to make sure the money gets out quickly into peoples’ pockets and to keep a close watch on how corporations are using the taxpayers funds that they receive, to make sure it goes to help workers, not rich CEOs or shareholders,” the former vice president said.
Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has also called to reopen schools and businesses, dismissing his argument that the “cure” of widespread shutdowns to contain the spread of the coronavirus is worse than the disease.
Bolsonaro contends that a clampdown already ordered by many governors will deeply wound the beleaguered economy and spark social unrest. In a nationally televised address Tuesday night, he urged governors to limit isolation only to high-risk people and lift the strict anti-virus measures they have imposed in their regions.
The country’s governors protested on Wednesday that his instructions run counter to health experts’ recommendations and endanger Latin America’s largest population. They said they would continue with their strict measures in place. The rebellion even included traditional allies of Brazil’s far-right president.
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 Gov. Miguel Barbosa’s comment Wednesday was apparently partly a response to statistics showing that the wealthy who travel much more have made up a significant percentage of Mexicans infected to date, including some prominent businessmen. The country has seen 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.”
Barbosa also appeared to be playing on an old stereotype held by some Mexicans that poor sanitation standards may have strengthened their immune systems by exposing them to bacteria or other bugs.
In other developments around the globe:
South Korea has reported 104 new cases and five more deaths, bringing its totals to 9,241 infections and 131 deaths.
From Friday, the country will enforce 14-day quarantines on South Korean nationals and foreigners with long-term stay visas arriving from the United States. Similar measures have already been applied to passengers arriving from Europe. South Koreans can be sued and foreigners expelled for failing to heed the order.
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 central Chinese provincial capital where the coronavirus emerged in December. After a monthslong lockdown, Wuhan residents are allowed out of the city, but cannot leave the surrounding province of Hubei until April 8.
China has recorded more than 81,000 cases and 3,287 deaths, but has seen its figures fall radically in recent weeks, prompting efforts to restart the world’s second largest economy. More than 74,000 people have been released from hospital, while just under 4,000 remain in care. 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.
Prince Charles, the 71-year-old heir to the British throne, tested positive for the virus but was showing only mild symptoms and was isolating himself at a royal estate in Scotland, his office said. The French Riviera city of Cannes opened the site of its world-famous film festival to the homeless.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said more than 400,000 people responded within a day to the government’s call for volunteers to help the country’s most vulnerable people.
The Pentagon halted for 60 days the movement of U.S. troops and Defense Department civilians overseas, a measure expected to affect about 90,000 troops scheduled to deploy or return from abroad.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.