Headlines: March 17, 2020
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President Donald Trump on Tuesday gathered his coronavirus response team for a White House press briefing, striking a far different tone than he had been. Concerned with the continued impact on the stock market Trump claimed it there was a “simple solution” to tackle the pandemic that has required whole cities to encourage semi-quarantines and even lockdowns. He also praised the federal government’s response and claimed despite evidence to the contrary that it was working well with state governments. When asked why he had come around to taking the virus seriously after downplaying it for weeks, Trump tried to rewrite history. The Washington Post compiled several instances when Trump downplayed the virus in contradiction to his current claim that he had been taking it seriously. Trump was also asked at Tuesday’s press briefing to respond to accusations of racism for repeatedly referring to the Covid-19 virus as the “Chinese Virus.”
Media outlets are reporting that Trump may have changed his tune on the seriousness of the virus after being shown a recent scientific paper by researchers in London who estimated that without drastic actions in the US to curb the spread of the disease, millions could die. According to the report, “in an unmitigated epidemic, we would predict approximately 510,000 deaths in [Great Britain] and 2.2 million in the US.” The White House on Monday recommended that people avoid traveling or gathering in public spaces. Additionally Trump said on Monday that people restrict gatherings to no more than 10 at a time, going further that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which had recommended no gatherings of 50 or more people. Trump said that in consultation with public health officials, the crisis could continue until July or August. A new poll found that a majority of Americans trust federal agencies like the CDC more than they trust the President.
The White House is also seeking a massive economic stimulus package to the tune of $850 billion that could put money directly into people’s hands. This represents a change compared to Trump’s initial idea of a payroll tax cut. According to the Washington Post, “The White House’s new $850 billion plan looks to effectively flood the economy with cash, officials said, and roughly $50 billion of it would go towards helping the airline industry, which is reeling from cancellations.” The package comes as the initial coronavirus relief bill passed by the House now heads to the Senate. Under that bill companies with fewer than 500 employees would be required to offer paid sick leave – but the vast majority of American workers would not be served by it. Meanwhile reports are emerging of service workers around the country losing their precarious livelihoods because of shutdowns especially those that rely on tips.
In the absence of federal government leadership states and cities around the country had been relying on setting their own rules. On Monday officials in the San Francisco area issued new rules requiring an estimated 7 million people to “shelter in place.” Dr. Sarah Cody, Santa Clara County health officer made the announcement on Monday. California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order halting all foreclosures and placing a temporary moratorium on utility shutoffs due to non-payment. And the California legislature approved a $1 billion funding plan to boost the state’s emergency medical response. According to Associated Press, there are currently 557 cases of infection in California and 7 deaths. The state most affected is New York where there are 967 confirmed cases of infection and 10 deaths, followed by the state of Washington where 904 people are infected. Washington has the highest fatality rate so far with 48 deaths. In the state of New York, a City council member said New York City should follow San Francisco’s example of “shelter in place” rules but Gov. Andrew Cuomo shot down the idea immediately saying, “It cannot happen…No city in the state can quarantine itself without state approval, and I have no interest whatsoever and no plan whatsoever to quarantine any city.”
Primary elections on Tuesday are also impacted by Covid-19 with the state of Ohio canceling the election just hours before polls were set to open. Florida voters complained of poll workers not showing up at 5 locations. AP reports that, “voting-rights advocacy groups filed a lawsuit seeking to extend mail voting in the state’s primary by 10 days,” to compensate. Elections in Arizona and Illinois are moving forward as planned.
As more and more Americans turn to delivery of essentials, business at the online retail giant Amazon is booming with the corporation announcing plans to hire 100,000 more workers and raise wages from $15 to $17 an hour. But workers are sounding the alarm over concerns of infections at warehouses. According to the Washington Post, “More than 1,500 workers from around the world have signed a petition that calls on the company to take additional steps to ensure the safety in their workplace.”
In spite of the fears of the virus, one set of federal workers is not staying at home: officers with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency are continuing to arrest immigrants. An ICE spokesperson in Los Angeles justified the operations saying, “We’re out here trying to protect the public by getting these criminal aliens off the street and out of our communities.” There is no evidence that undocumented immigrants are to blame for the virus spread and in fact are likely to be more vulnerable to the disease when kept in detention. A large coalition of immigrant rights groups on Tuesday signed a letter asking Homeland Security to, “suspend immigration enforcement operations,” among other things.
In international news, Iran is warning that the coronavirus could kill millions of people if residents continue to travel and ignore quarantine warnings. The death toll in Iran jumped by 13% on Tuesday. The country has temporarily released about 85,000 prisoners. In India, health experts are warning that the nation’s testing standards are too strict and that far fewer people are being tested than should be. In Brazil, hundreds of prisoners escaped semi-open prisons and although many were recaptured, as many as 1,500 remain at large. The prisoners were rebelling against the cancelation of Easter-visits because of the coronavirus. And in Germany, Friedrich Merz, the politician who is expected to take over from Chancellor Angela Merkel, has been diagnosed with Covid-19.