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US Senate passes multibillion-dollar package to fight coronavirus

The legislation would provide federal public health agencies with money for vaccines, tests and potential treatments.

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A firefighter disinfects an ATM machine in Iran (Vahid Salemi/AP)

A firefighter disinfects an ATM machine in Iran (Vahid Salemi/AP)

A firefighter disinfects an ATM machine in Iran (Vahid Salemi/AP)

The Senate has passed an multibillion-dollar measure to tackle the coronavirus outbreak as its rapid spread threatens to upend everyday life in the US and across the globe.

The 8.3 billion dollar package would pay for a multi-faceted attack on a virus that is spreading more widely every day, sending financial markets spiralling again on Thursday, disrupting travel and potentially threatening the US economy’s decade-long expansion.

Thursday’s sweeping 96-1 vote sends the bill to the White House for President Donald Trump’s signature. The House passed the bill Wednesday by a 415-2 vote.

The plan would more than triple the 2.5 billion dollars amount outlined by the White House 10 days ago.

HEALTH Coronavirus
(PA Graphics)

The Trump proposal was immediately discarded by members of Congress from both parties. Instead, they negotiated the increased figure in a burst of bipartisan cooperation that has been increasingly rare in Washington.

“In situations like this, I believe no expense should be spared to protect the American people, and in crafting this package none was,” said Appropriations Committee chairman Richard Shelby. “It’s an aggressive plan, a vigorous plan that has received an overwhelming positive reaction.”

Mr Trump is sure to sign the measure, which has almost universal support. It is intended to project confidence and calm as anxiety builds over the impact of the virus, which has claimed 11 lives in the US.

“The American people are looking for leadership and want assurance that their government is up to the task of protecting their health and safety,” said Senator Patrick Leahy.

The legislation would provide federal public health agencies with money for vaccines, tests and potential treatments, including 300 million dollars to deliver drugs to those who need it.

More than 2 billion dollars would go to help federal, state and local governments prepare for and respond to the coronavirus threat. An additional 1.3 billion would be used to help fight the virus overseas.

Lebanon Virus Outbreak
Passengers line up as workers wearing protective gear spray disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus outbreak in Lebanon (Hassan Ammar/AP)

The US bill was passed after the UN health agency urged all countries to “push this virus back”, a call to action reinforced by figures showing there are about 17 times as many new infections outside China as inside. To date, the virus has infected nearly 97,000 people and killed over 3,300.

“This is not a drill. This is not the time for giving up. This is not a time for excuses. This is a time for pulling out all the stops,” World Health Organisation director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a daily briefing in Geneva.

“Countries have been planning for scenarios like this for decades. Now is the time to act on those plans.”

As Chinese manufacturers gradually reopened their factories, anti-virus barriers went up elsewhere.

In Italy, the epicentre of Europe’s outbreak, workers in latex gloves pinned “closed” notices on school gates, enforcing a 10-day shutdown of the education system. Italy’s sports-mad fans are also barred from stadiums until April 3.

Italy Virus Outbreak Families
A young girl walks with her elderly grandparent along a tree-lined avenue in Rome (AP)

A government decree that took effect on Thursday urged the country’s famously demonstrative citizens to stay at least 1 metre apart from each other, placed restrictions on visiting nursing homes and urged the elderly not to go outside unless absolutely necessary.

That directive appeared to be widely ignored, as school closures nationwide left many Italian children in the care of their grandparents.

Parks in Rome overflowed with both young and old, undercutting government efforts to shield older Italians from the virus that hits the elderly harder than others. Italy has the world’s oldest population after Japan. Italy’s death toll climbed Thursday to 148, and its confirmed cases to 3,858.

Iran, which has registered 107 virus deaths, has also closed schools and universities. Now it has introduced checkpoints to limit travel between major cities. Iranians were urged to reduce their use of paper money.

Amid the string of bad news, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani urged state television to offer “happier” programmes to entertain those stuck at home.

“I urge all artists, scientists, psychologists and all who can bring smiles to people’s faces, come into the social media,” he said.

Virus Outbreak Mideast Iran
A city worker disinfects a taxi because of the coronavirus in Tehran (Vahid Salemi/AP)

Brian Hook, the US special representative for Iran, said the United States offered humanitarian assistance to help Iran deal with its outbreak but “the regime rejected the offer”. He said the offer would stand.

Virus fears also affected the joyful Indian celebration of Holi, in which Hindu revellers celebrate the arrival of spring with bursts of colour, including bright powders smeared on faces.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other leaders said they would not attend Holi events and the Holi Moo Festival in New Delhi was canceled.

In the United States, where 11 have died from the virus, hundreds of people were placed in self-quarantines due to cases in a New York suburb. A school district north of Seattle with 22,000 students announced it will close for up to two weeks because of coronavirus concerns.

Across the globe, travellers faced greater disruptions, as countries sought to keep the virus out. South Africa confirmed its first case on Thursday, becoming the seventh African nation to report infections.

Australia banned travellers from South Korea who are not Australian citizens or permanent residents, following similar bans for China and Iran.

Indonesia announced restrictions on travellers from parts of Iran, Italy and South Korea after previously banning those coming in from China. The United Arab Emirates warned its people not to travel anywhere abroad.

Virus Outbreak South Korea
People line up to buy face masks to protect themselves from the new coronavirus in Seoul (Ahn Young-joon/AP)

Germany’s Lufthansa and its subsidiaries Austrian Airlines and Swiss said they will cancel all flights to and from Israel for three weeks starting on Sunday after Israeli authorities announced tough restrictions on travellers from several countries because of the new virus.

Palestinian officials closed the Church of the Nativity in the biblical city of Bethlehem indefinitely, weeks ahead of the busy Easter holiday.

Japan said visitors from China and South Korea would face a two-week quarantine at a government facility and be barred from public transit. Sri Lankans arriving from Italy, South Korea and Iran will be quarantined at a hospital once used for leprosy patients.

In South Korea, with the highest number of infections outside China, exports of face masks will be prohibited beginning on Friday and people will be limited to buying two masks a week.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sent a letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in to express condolences over the health crisis.

In China, where hospitals were releasing hundreds of recovered patients, officials reported 139 new cases of infection and 31 more deaths. Overall, China has reported 80,409 cases and 3,012 deaths, and authorities say about 6,000 people remained hospitalised in a serious condition.

A state visit to Japan by Chinese President Xi Jinping was postponed. It was to have been the first for a Chinese leader since 2008.

PA