Passengers wear face masks to protect against Covid-19 after arriving at Los Angeles airport in California, the US, March 5 2020. Picture: MARK RALSTON / AFP
Passengers wear face masks to protect against Covid-19 after arriving at Los Angeles airport in California, the US, March 5 2020. Picture: MARK RALSTON / AFP

Washington  — The Senate passed a $7.8bn emergency coronavirus spending bill on Thursday, sending it to President Donald Trump, who has called the plan “great news” and is expected to sign it.

The vote was 96-1. The House passed the measure a day earlier on a 415-2 vote.

The bill far exceeds Trump’s original request for $1.25bn in new funds and another $1.25bn from other government social and health programmes. Legislators  said they expect Congress will have to provide more emergency funding before the virus outbreak subsides.

In addition to the $7.8bn in new spending, the bill permits Medicare to spend $500m  on so-called tele-health programmes for the virus, for a total of $8.3bn.

The measure would reimburse state and local governments for the cost of preparing for and fighting the virus. It includes $3.1bn to stockpile medical supplies and $300m  for government purchases of tests, vaccines and therapies to ensure that the poor have access.

Another $1.25bn will be directed to combating the spread of the virus overseas, and a provision unlocks up to $7bn in low-interest loans to small businesses affected by the outbreak.

Legislators spent much of this week negotiating over how to make a coronavirus vaccine affordable for Americans. The bill seeks to ensure that the federal government pays a fair price for vaccines, and it allows the health and human services secretary to regulate the commercial price. Democrats had initially sought a stricter price cap.

Voting against the measure was Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, who had unsuccessfully pushed an amendment that would cut foreign aid to pay some of the bill’s cost. The emergency measure is financed through deficit spending.

The US death toll from  Covid-19 was at 11, officials said on Thursday, with 149 confirmed and presumed US cases, which included those reported by states but not yet confirmed by the agency. 

In other developments: 

• The South African government is not enforcing any immediate restrictions or bans in the wake of the first case of coronavirus being detected in SA. Health minister Zweli Mkhize confirmed on Thursday that the 38-year-old man who tested positive for Covid-19 is a South African citizen. 

• Italy said it would double the amount planned to help contain the affect of the coronavirus outbreak on the economy to €7.5bn.  The announcement marks a dramatic escalation in the government’s response, which has so far included measures such as a nationwide closure of schools and a ban on public events.

• Next week’s session of the European parliament will be moved from Strasbourg to Brussels due to “significantly higher health risks”, Speaker David Sassoli announced on Thursday, as France reported more cases of the new coronavirus. 

• The Paris marathon has been postponed from April 5 to October 18 due to the coronavirus outbreak, organisers said on Thursday. About 423 coronavirus cases have been reported and seven people have died in France, the European country second most affected by coronavirus after Italy.

• The World Health Organisation said  that a number of countries were  not taking all the steps needed to fight against the spread of the coronavirus. A “long list” of countries were  not showing “the level of political commitment” needed to “match the level of the threat we all face”, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. 

• Russia has cancelled its flagship annual St Petersburg International Economic Forum in 2020  as a precaution against coronavirus, First Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov said on Thursday. The forum, which was due to be held in St Petersburg on June 3-6, is usually chaired by President Vladimir Putin and is seen as one of the main international events on Russia’s economic agenda.

• Britain on Thursday announced its first death from coronavirus within the country, as the total number of confirmed cases jumped to 115. The patient, being treated in the Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading, west of London, was elderly and had “underlying health conditions”, he said. The patient is believed to have contracted the virus in Britain.

• Twitter CEO  Jack Dorsey said he will reconsider working remotely from Africa in 2020 due to the coronavirus and “everything else going on”.  Dorsey wrote on Twitter late last year that he wanted to spend up to six months on the African continent in 2020.  

Bloomberg, AFP

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