News briefs: ‘Bigger than any one of us' as Biden, Sanders tackle pandemic

Associated Press

'WASHINGTON (AP) — Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders sought in the Democratic debate to cast themselves as best-positioned to lead the nation through a global pandemic, uniting in their criticism of President Donald Trump's response to the fast-moving coronavirus but diverging in how they would confront the spiraling public health and economic crisis.

Biden pledged Sunday to deploy the United States military to help with recovery efforts and warned that a federal financial bailout may be necessary to stabilize the economy. Sanders leaned into the same domestic policy proposals that have dominated his campaign, arguing that the government-run health insurance system he has long championed would allow the U.S. to respond faster to a health crisis.

The coronavirus outbreak has rapidly reshaped nearly all aspects of American life, shuttering schools across the country and significantly curtailing travel. Virus fears have also halted campaign rallies and prompted some states to delay upcoming primaries because of warnings from public health officials against large gatherings.

"This is bigger than any one of us — this calls for a national rallying for one another," Biden said.

Indeed, the stakes in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination have shifted dramatically since Biden and Sanders last debated less than three weeks ago — as have the contours of the contest. After a sluggish start to the primary season, Biden has surged to the front of the field, drawing overwhelming support from black voters and consolidating the backing of several more moderate rivals who have dropped out of the race. He's also actively courting the endorsement of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a liberal ally of Sanders who dropped out without throwing her support behind him.

Analysis: Biden's pragmatism shines in virus-centered debate

NEW YORK (AP) — As he campaigns for president, Joe Biden's moderate approach to governing often fails to excite his party's most passionate voters. But on the debate stage, as the nation wrestled with the consequences of a frightening pandemic, Biden's pragmatism broke through in ways that affirmed why he has become the front-runner for the Democratic nomination.

The former two-term vice president and longtime senator, who has spent the last four decades as a Washington insider, faced off Sunday night against Sen. Bernie Sanders and his burn-it-down progressive politics in the first one-on-one debate of the Democratic Party's 2020 primary season.

It was Biden's first chance to show how he might be seen in a face-off with President Donald Trump. He was crisper in his answers than he had been in forums with multiple candidates and he was more focused when framing his differences with Sanders, who used the evening as perhaps a last, best shot at slowing Biden's march. But in the midst of an escalating global health threat, it was much more than that.

With the nation focused on the coronavirus outbreak rather than traditions like Selection Sunday for the NCAA basketball tournament, the debate provided a national moment for Americans to more closely consider the final two men who want to be the alternative to Trump in November.

They offered dramatically different visions of leadership to an anxious nation suddenly held captive by crisis, giving Democratic primary voters, and the broader electorate, a chance to take an up-close measure.

Asia urges vigilance to maintain hard-won infection drops

TOKYO (AP) — Millions of people began holing up at home, stocking up on supplies and keeping a wary eye on how close they get to friends and neighbors as fear of the coronavirus spread to more places around the world Monday.

Resorts closed on the Las Vegas strip. Many restaurants offered only takeout, if they were open at all. Schools, concerts, sporting events — even small-scale St. Patrick's Day parties — were canceled. 

It's a reality Northeast Asia has been living with for months, but while the focus of the pandemic appears to be shifting away from its original epicenter, many in Asia continue to urge vigilance against anything that might hurt hard-won gains. 

"If we loosen our grip on the quarantine, it could be a matter of time for the embers of small-scale cluster infections to be revived," the South Korean mass-circulation Dong-a Ilbo newspaper said in an editorial Monday.

China, where the virus was first detected in December, now accounts for less than half of the world's 169,000 cases, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. China has also been surpassed in deaths.

US moves nearer to shutdown amid coronavirus fears

CHICAGO (AP) — Officials across the country curtailed many elements of American life to fight the coronavirus outbreak on Sunday, with health officials recommending that groups of 50 or more don't get together and a government expert saying a 14-day national shutdown may be needed. 

Governors and mayors closed restaurants, bars, and schools as the nation sank deeper into chaos. Travelers returning home from abroad were stuck in line for hours at major airports for screenings, crammed into just the kind of crowded spaces that public health officials have urged people to avoid.

In a sign of impending economic gloom, the Federal Reserve slashed its benchmark interest rate to near zero. President Donald Trump sought to calm a jittery nation by declaring the government has "tremendous control" over the situation and urging people to stop the panic buying of grocery staples that has depleted store shelves nationwide. Gun stores started seeing a similar run on weapons and ammunition as the panic intensified.

As Americans struggled with changing their daily habits, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a dramatic recommendation: Because large events can fuel the spread of the disease, it said gatherings of 50 people or more should be canceled or postponed throughout the country for the next eight weeks. It added that, at any event, people should take proper precautions, including handwashing and keeping one's distance.

But in a sign of the difficulty of striking the right balance, the CDC statement also said the recommendation does not apply to "the day to day operation of organizations such as schools, institutes of higher learning, or businesses."

Reports: Member of Iranian clerical assembly dies from virus

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — A 78-year-old member of the Iranian clerical body that chooses the country's supreme leader has died from the illness caused by the new coronavirus, news agencies reported Monday. He was the latest of several senior Iranian officials to have been infected in the worsening outbreak.

The outbreak has infected nearly 14,000 people in Iran and killed more than 700, with the toll jumping by more than a hundred in the last 24 hours. The real numbers may be even higher, as some have questioned the government's reporting.

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.

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

The semi-official Fars and Tasnim news agencies reported that Ayatollah Hashem Bathaei, a low-profile, moderate member of the Assembly of Experts, died from the COVID-19 illness.

'There is nothing now': Syrians in Idlib fear end nearing

IDLIB, Syria (AP) — "There's nothing now. Nothing at all," said Yasser Aboud, as he looked away from his family's few remaining belongings, dumped on the floor of the bare single room that would now be their home in the northwest Syrian city of Idlib. 

It was a far cry from the house, the farm, and the job that he, his wife and three children left behind two months ago, fleeing their hometown just 15 kilometers (9 miles) down the road as it was overwhelmed by Syrian government troops in furious fighting. He managed to salvage some jerrycans of olives, a few rugs, cushions and pots and pans, and his motorbike. They sold their washing machine and some of his wife's gold. 

Now they were moving into an apartment in a district full of buildings shattered by government bombardment. He and his wife and three kids will share the place with over a dozen relatives. They're jobless in a city teeming with thousands of others displaced like them — and they are hardly out of danger. 

The city of Idlib is the last urban area still under opposition control in Syria, located in a shrinking rebel enclave in the northwestern province of the same name. Syria's civil war, which entered its 10th year on Monday, has shrunk in geographical scope — focusing on this tiny corner of the country — but the misery wreaked by the conflict has not diminished. 

A bloodier and possibly more disastrous phase is on the horizon if government forces, backed by Russia and Iran, go ahead with threats to recapture Idlib city and the remaining rebel-held north, crammed with over 3 million people. 

Asian stock markets, US futures sink after Fed's rate cut

BEIJING (AP) — Asian stock markets and U.S. futures fell Monday after the Federal Reserve slashed its key interest rate to shore up economic growth in the face of mounting global anti-virus controls that are shutting down business and travel.

Sydney's benchmark plunged 7 percent and Hong Kong's Hang Seng lost 2 percent. Shanghai was down 0.5 percent and Tokyo was flat. Brent crude, the international oil standard, fell 3 percent while gold gained.

On Wall Street, futures for the benchmark S&P 500 index fell 5% on Sunday night and triggered a halt in trading.

"Despite whipping out the big guns," the Fed's action is "falling short of being the decisive backstop for markets," said Vishnu Varathan of Mizuho Bank in a report. "Markets might have perceived the Fed's response as panic, feeding into its own

Government official: Coronavirus vaccine trial starts Monday

WASHINGTON (AP) — The first participant in a clinical trial for a vaccine to protect against the new coronavirus will receive an experimental dose on Monday, according to a government official.

The National Institutes of Health is funding the trial, which is taking place at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle. The official who disclosed plans for the first participant spoke on condition of anonymity because the move has not been publicly announced.

Public health officials say it will take a year to 18 months to fully validate any potential vaccine. 

Testing will begin with 45 young, healthy volunteers with different doses of shots co-developed by NIH and Moderna Inc. There's no chance participants could get infected from the shots, because they don't contain the virus itself. The goal is purely to check that the vaccines show no worrisome side effects, setting the stage for larger tests.

Dozens of research groups around the world are racing to create a vaccine as COVID-19 cases continue to grow. Importantly, they're pursuing different types of vaccines — shots developed from new technologies that not only are faster to produce than traditional inoculations but might prove more potent. Some researchers even aim for temporary vaccines, such as shots that might guard people's health a month or two at a time while longer-lasting protection is developed.

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Trump calls on Americans to cease hoarding food, supplies

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump is calling on people to stop hoarding groceries and other supplies as one of the nation's most senior public health officials urged Americans to act with more urgency to protect themselves and others against the coronavirus. Dr. Anthony Fauci said he would like to see aggressive measures such as a 14-day national shutdown.

"You don't have to buy so much," Trump said at a news conference. "Take it easy. Just relax."

Trump assured Americans, after speaking with leading grocery chain executives, that grocers would remain open and that the supply chain remained healthy. Speaking at the same White House news conference, Vice President Mike Pence urged Americans to buy only the groceries they need for the week ahead.

The comments from the president came Sunday after the government's top infectious disease expert said he would like to see Americans to hunker down even more to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Still, Fauci said travel restrictions within the United States, such as to and from hard-hit Washington state and California, probably would not be needed anytime soon.

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