On his first full day in office, US President Joe Biden signed several executive orders and presidential directives aimed at curbing the coronavirus pandemic
The ten orders cover a range of measures, such as speeding up testing and vaccination, laying the groundwork for reopening schools and businesses, and using emergency laws to increase the production of essentials such as masks and personal protective equipment (PPE) kits.
Biden’s seven-point plan, titled “National Strategy for the Covid-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness”, aims to reduce the ferocity with which the pandemic has struck the US, which despite having only four per cent of the world’s population has 25 per cent of the world’s Covid-19 cases and 20 per cent of all Covid-19 deaths.
Unlike former President Donald Trump, whose administration relied on states to deal with the pandemic, Biden has decided to lead with a centralised effort going ahead.
Also, unlike his predecessor, who for months downplayed the risks from the virus, Biden has discussed the pandemic’s impending threat in sobering terms, saying on Thursday, “Things are going to continue to get worse before they get better”.
Biden, who has said that the number of deaths in the US would cross five lakh in February, has called his pandemic response strategy a “wartime undertaking”. “We didn’t get into this mess overnight, and it will take months to turn this around,” Biden said.
The 200-page strategy aims at ramping up vaccination, whose rollout so far has been described by Biden as a “dismal failure”. In its first 100 days, the Biden-Harris administration aims to complete 10 crore vaccine jabs– an effort the President has described as “one of the greatest operational challenges our nation has ever taken on”. So far, around 1.65 crore shots have been administered.
As part of the plan, vaccine centres will be started at stadiums and community facilities, and schools will be reopened safely within 100 days.
Building on a separate plan devised by the Trump administration, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) will be starting a program to make vaccines available in local pharmacies starting February. Also, an effort is being launched to train more people in administering vaccines.
For international travellers, those departing the US will have to test negative before leaving, and those entering will have to self-quarantine for 14 days on arrival. Face coverings will be compulsory at airports as well as many flights, intercity buses, trains and public transportation, on top of existing social distancing and mask rules applicable to federal government properties.
The measures announced in the strategy will be funded by the $1.9 trillion stimulus package that Biden announced last week. While the executive orders do not require approval from the US Congress to go into effect, Biden will need support from both the Senate and the House of Representatives to ensure that the stimulus package is adopted.
A new office will be started to coordinate the national pandemic response. Under the plan, the federal government will be assuming full responsibility, and more funding and technical backup will be provided to the states, who under Trump were delegated major tasks related to the pandemic. One directive also aims at addressing health care inequities in minority communities that have been hard hit by the virus.
To ramp up the production of essential supplies including PPE kits, swabs and masks when necessary, the Biden administration has instructed federal agencies to use the Defense Production Act, a law that was also used by President Trump last year to direct private industry to increase production when emergency items were in short supply.
Making another departure from the Trump administration, the US will now be staying on as a member of the World Health Organisation (WHO), with chief medical adviser Dr Anthony Fauci saying that Washington will continue to provide funding for the UN body.
Dr Fauci has said that if the vaccination campaign succeeds, the US could return to a “degree of normality” by around September this year, and for the country to achieve “herd” immunity it would require at least 28 crore people to get vaccinated, from the total population of around 33 crore.