By Arul Louis
New York, March 14 (IANS) The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives passed a massive relief package on Saturday to help those affected by the coronavirus pandemic in the country, hours after President Donald Trump declared a national emergency to deal with the crisis.
The national emergency he declared on Friday will make as much as $50 billion available for fighting the fallout of the disease and cut red tape for finding medical solutions.
Its symbolism will reflect the seriousness of the situation facing the country and the relief package’s passage is a rare example of the Democrats and Republicans coming together for cause.
The relief package, which had the backing of Trump, is now expected to be taken up on Monday by the Republican-majority Senate, which has cancelled its spring recess.
The battered stock markets zoomed as Trump declared the national emergency at a White House news conference.
After having plummeted by more than 9 per cent on Thursday, the markets gained about the same percentage on Friday, most of the uptick happening dramatically while Trump spoke.
Trump said his emergency declaration was “to unleash the full power of the federal government” and that states and territories will have access to federal funds to meet the challenge.
“I’m urging every state to set up emergency operations centers effective immediately.”
Trump said that under the emergency, the rules would be made flexible to allow doctors and hospitals to effectively deal with the crisis.
Health Secretary Alex Azar and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will be empowered to waive rules for developing medications, vaccines and tests, and for promoting telemedicine.
The declaration came as the number of coronavirus cases in the US hit 1,800 with 41 deaths hitting all aspects of life from the economy and politics to education and entertainment.
Although Trump had criticised the relief package proposed by the Democratic Party during the news conference, he later tweeted his support for it asserting it includes his “direction” for free coronavirus tests and paid sick leave.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin negotiated the package to be known as the Families First Coronavirus Response Act on behalf of the Trump administration as Trump and the Republican leaders in Congress have bad personal relations with Pelosi, having traded personal insults.
The Democrats had insisted on adding labour-friendly provisions like three months of family leave and dropping Trump’s demand for suspending payroll taxes. Ultimately Trump compromised because he desperately needs the package to deal with the crisis.
In a magnanimous gesture, Pelosi said: “We thank our Republicans – those who will be supporting the bill. We appreciate the President joining us with his tweet.”
In keeping with the Republican philosophy of involving the private sector Trump announced several initiatives with corporations while declaring the emergency.
The showpiece of the private-public partnership is an initiative with Google that will enable people to screen themselves online to see if they needed a COVID-19 test and if they are a candidate for it where to get it.
Trump said that 1,700 engineers will be working on the projects with Google and it will be ready by Sunday.
But Google later said that it will only begin testing it in the San Francisco area on Sunday.
Trump met several executives of private companies before the news conference to work out their participation and some of them spoke to the media about their programmes.
The retailer Walmart with a large national footprint and others said they will make available their facilities for COVID-19 testing.
Trump defended his administration’s response to the crisis saying that it was following the procedures in place that were not designed for a crisis like the coronavirus and that changes would be made to deal with similar crises should they arise in the future.
Seema Verma, who heads the two separate federal health insurance programmes for senior citizens and for the poor, noted that a lot of the deaths were among older people and said that several new regulations are being put in place to protect those in nursing homes for the elderly.
Trump declared the emergency under a 1988 law for funnelling aid to states and local administrations.
Unlike in India, a state of emergency in the US does not involve limiting civil rights and it only paves the way for providing funds for dealing with the fallout of the coronavirus and for relaxing laws and regulations to speed up medical response.
(Arul Louis can be contacted at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @arulouis)