‘I’ll always tell you the truth’: Biden calls for national response to coronavirus outbreak

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden on Thursday called for a sweeping national response to the coronavirus outbreak, chiding President Donald Trump for a response he said was woefully insufficient and warning that the widening public health crisis should not be viewed through a lens of politics.

“This administration has left us woefully unprepared for the exact crisis we now face,” Biden said, in a speech delivered from his hometown of Wilmington, Del., and tailored to draw sharp contrasts between the former vice president and the Republican incumbent he hopes to topple this fall.

“No president can promise to prevent future outbreaks, but I can promise you this: when I’m president we will be better prepared, respond better and recover better,” Biden declared. “We will lead with science, listen to the experts, will heed their advice. We’ll build American leadership and rebuild it to rally the world to meet the global threats that we are likely to face again.”

Biden cautioned that the virus, which some Trump allies have dismissed as overblown fodder for the president’s critics, “does not have a political affiliation.” And in a direct dig at Trump, Biden added another pledge: “I’ll always tell you the truth. This is the responsibility of a president. That’s what is owed the American people.”

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, says this is a time for all Americans to come together. (Charles Krupa/The Associated Press)

Incompetence ‘threatened’ lives

Biden’s Democratic primary rival, Bernie Sanders, also addressed the coronavirus less than 24 hours after Trump spoke to the nation from the Oval Office about a public health crisis he’d previously downplayed. Sanders said the outbreak may isolate Americans working from home and in quarantine, and he suggested the country needed to band together, not divide.

“If there ever was a time in the modern history of our country when we were all in this together, this is the moment,” Sanders said. He said of Trump’s White House, “We have an administration that is largely incompetent and whose incompetence and recklessness have threatened the lives of many, many people in this country.”

Biden aides pitched his speech as a demonstration of how he might conduct himself as president in response to a severe challenge, while contrasting himself with a Republican president he has lambasted as erratic and incompetent. The event also allowed Biden to juxtapose his style and approach with that of Sanders.

Sanders called on Trump to declare a national emergency and said a hotline should be established for people seeking information about coronavirus.

He also said the U.S. was at a “major disadvantage” compared with other countries since many people have no medical insurance.

Sanders has advocated for fully government-financed health care under a “Medicare for All” system that is the centrepiece of his campaign. But he said Thursday that in the meantime during the outbreak, the government must ensure that, “Everyone must be able to get all of the health care that they need without cost.” He added that if a vaccine to the virus is developed, it should be free.

“We need an emergency response to the emergency,” Sanders said, “and we need it immediately.”

Biden now leads Sanders by more than 150 delegates after winning four more state primaries Tuesday, with Washington state still being counted. And his advantage could expand considerably next Tuesday when the delegate-rich states of Florida, Illinois and Ohio hold primaries.

For Biden, the aim of his address was to give voters a practical example of one of his core arguments: that he’d be ready on Inauguration Day to handle whatever trials reach the Oval Office. 

Events cancelled, debate moved

Biden and Sanders have both cancelled public events ahead of next Tuesday’s primaries, yielding to public health officers and elected officials who are discouraging large campaign rallies. The pair will meet in a debate Sunday night on CNN, without a live audience. The Democratic National Committee announced the debate would be moved from Arizona to Washington over concerns about cross-country travel amid the outbreak. 

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

Sanders is 78. Biden is 77.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

Biden has solidified his position as the prohibitive favourite for his party’s nomination, but Sanders has made clear he’s not ready to abandon his campaign, and many of the senator’s supporters on the progressive left aren’t enthusiastic about embracing Biden as the Democratic standard-bearer. That slice of the Democratic coalition likely isn’t enough to derail Biden’s nomination, but it could complicate his efforts in a general election campaign, just as it did for Hillary Clinton in 2016 after she defeated Sanders but lost to Trump in November.

Projecting leadership on a grave public health matter could be a boon with the middle of the electorate, especially independents and moderate Republicans wary of Trump. But it won’t necessarily corral Sanders supporters who also will play key roles in deciding battleground-state outcomes in November.

For his part, Trump said Thursday he’s “very happy to run against” Biden.

“One of the reasons I ran for president was because of Joe and the job they did,” Trump said, referring to Biden’s time as Obama’s vice-president. “It’s maybe the way it should be.”

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