The “American Rescue Plan” has already been backed by US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer who said they will work fast to sign it "into law."
US President-elect Joe Biden has unveiled a $1.9 trillion coronavirus plan to end “a crisis of deep human suffering” by speeding up vaccines and pumping out financial help to those struggling with the pandemic’s prolonged economic fallout.
Called the “American Rescue Plan,” the legislative proposal would meet Biden's goal of administering 100 million vaccines by the 100th day of his administration, while advancing his objective of reopening most schools by the spring. On a parallel track, it would deliver another round of aid to stabilise the economy while the public health effort seeks the upper hand on the pandemic, said aides who described the plan ahead of a speech by Biden on Thursday evening.
“We not only have an economic imperative to act now – I believe we have a moral obligation,” Biden said in a nationwide address. At the same time, he acknowledged that his plan “does not come cheaply.”
It includes $1,400 checks for most Americans, which on top of $600 provided in the most recent Covid-19 bill would bring the total to the $2,000 that Biden has called for. The plan would also extend a temporary boost in unemployment benefits and a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures through September. And it shoehorns in the long-term Democratic policy aim of increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour and expanding paid leave for workers across the economy.
We’re in the teeth of this crisis, and we need to take immediate action to get the virus under control. That’s why tomorrow, I’ll be laying out my vaccination and economic rescue package to beat COVID-19 and build back better. https://t.co/YRzJ5nlkDm— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) January 14, 2021
US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said Congress would get right to work on Biden's stimulus package.
"The emergency relief framework announced by the incoming Biden-Harris administration tonight is the right approach," Pelosi and Schumer said in a joint statement on Thursday. "We will get right to work to turn President-elect Biden’s vision into legislation that will pass both chambers and be signed into law."
“The crisis of deep human suffering is in plain sight, and there’s not time to waste," Biden said. “We have to act and we have to act now.”
Still, he sought to manage expectations. “We’re better equipped to do this than any nation in the world," he said. “But even with all these small steps, it’s going to take time.”
The emergency legislation would be paid for with borrowed money, adding to trillions in debt the government has already incurred to confront the pandemic.
Aides said Biden will make the case that the additional spending and borrowing is necessary to prevent the economy from sliding into an even deeper hole. Interest rates are low, making debt more manageable. The aides spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the plan ahead of his speech on Thursday night.
Biden has long held that economic recovery is inextricably linked with controlling the coronavirus. “Our work begins with getting Covid under control,” he declared in his victory speech. “We cannot repair the economy, restore our vitality or relish life’s most precious moments until we get it under control.”
The plan comes as a divided nation is in the grip of the pandemic’s most dangerous wave yet. So far, more than 385,000 people have died of Covid-19 in the US And government numbers out on Thursday reported a jump in weekly unemployment claims, to 965,000, a sign that rising infections are forcing businesses to cut back and lay off workers.
Where will the money go?
Under Biden's multipronged strategy, about $400 billion would go directly to combating the pandemic, while the rest is focused on economic relief and aid to states and localities.
About $20 billion would be allocated for a more disciplined focus on vaccination, on top of some $8 billion already approved by Congress. Biden has called for setting up mass vaccination centres and sending mobile units to hard-to-reach areas.
With the backing of Congress and the expertise of private and government scientists, the Trump administration delivered two highly effective vaccines and more are on the way. Yet a month after the first shots were given, the nation’s vaccination campaign is off to a slow start with about 11 million people getting the first of two shots, although more than 30 million doses have been delivered.
Biden called the vaccine rollout “a dismal failure so far" and said he would provide more details about his vaccination campaign on Friday.
The plan provides $50 billion to expand testing, which is seen as key to reopening most schools by the end of the new administration's first 100 days. About $130 billion would be allocated to help schools reopen without risking further contagion.
The plan would fund the hiring of 100,000 public health workers, to focus on encouraging people to get vaccinated and on tracing the contacts of those infected with the coronavirus.
There's also a proposal to boost investment in genetic sequencing, to help track new virus strains including the more contagious variants identified in the United Kingdom and South Africa.
Throughout the plan, there's a focus on ensuring that minority communities that have borne the brunt of the pandemic are not shortchanged on vaccines and treatments, aides said.
Biden insists on masks, social distancing
With the new proposals comes a call to redouble efforts on the basics.
Biden is asking Americans to override their sense of pandemic fatigue and recommit to wearing masks, practicing social distancing and avoiding indoor gatherings, particularly larger ones. It's still the surest way to slow the Covid-19 wave, with more than 4,400 deaths reported just on Tuesday.
Biden's biggest challenge will be to “win the hearts and minds of the American people to follow his lead,” said Dr. Leana Wen, a public health expert and emergency physician.
With the backing of Congress and the expertise of private and government scientists, the Trump administration has delivered two highly effective vaccines and more are on the way. Yet a month after the first shots were given, the nation's vaccination campaign is off to a slow start with about 10.3 million people getting the first of two shots, although more than 29 million doses have been delivered.
Biden believes the key to speeding that up lies not only in delivering more vaccine but also in working closely with states and local communities to get shots into the arms of more people. The Trump administration provided the vaccine to states and set guidelines for who should get priority for shots, but largely left it up to state and local officials to organise their vaccination campaigns.
“This is going to entail coordination at all levels, as well as resources,” said Dr. Nadine Gracia, executive vice president of the nonpartisan Trust for America's Health. “There is a commitment the [incoming] administration has articulated to address the needs of communities.”
Biden has set a goal of administering 100 million shots in his first 100 days. The pace of vaccination is approaching 1 million shots a day, but 1.8 million a day would be needed to reach widespread or “herd” immunity by the summer, according to a recent estimate by the American Hospital Association. Wen says the pace should be even higher – closer to 3 million a day.
It's still unclear how the new administration will address the issue of vaccine hesitancy, the doubts and suspicions that keep many people from getting a shot. Polls show it's particularly a problem among Black Americans. “It's important to acknowledge the reasons why it exists and work to earn trust and build vaccine confidence in communities,” said Gracia.
Next Wednesday, when Biden will be sworn in as president, marks the anniversary of the first confirmed case of Covid-19 in the United States.