As COVID-19 outbreaks spread globally and the Trump administration’s response comes under greater scrutiny, it’s no shock the coronavirus came up during Tuesday night’s Democratic debate in South Carolina. Debate moderators noted the new CDC warning, issued earlier in the day, that Americans should expect outbreaks of the virus inside their communities. Four candidates — Michael Bloomberg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden — had chances to weigh in with their proposals and criticism.
Michael Bloomberg was the first to bring up the crisis, unprompted, in order to raise alarm about President Trump’s lack of preparation. “The president fired the pandemic specialist in this country two years ago,” the former mayor correctly noted. “There’s nobody here to figure out what the hell we should be doing. And he’s defunded the CDC.”
CBS moderator Gayle King then cut Bloomberg off as he started talking about the outbreak’s dire impact on the stock market, insisting, “We’ll talk about that in the next segment,” before asking him instead about his public-health policies in New York and his attempt to ban soda.
The other three candidates were later asked questions about how they would handle the crisis, and all three called for restoring full funding to the CDC and NIH.
King asked Amy Klobuchar if she would close the border to Americans infected abroad in order to prevent the spread of the virus in the U.S. Klobuchar didn’t directly answer the question, explaining that she would make sure the Americans were treated. She then repeated the criticisms Bloomberg had made about Trump and added that unlike Trump she would have addressed the nation by now on the subject, and she would better coordinate disease-outbreak preparedness in her administration.
Klobuchar also took the opportunity to encourage viewers to visit the CDC website to learn more about the virus and what they should do if they feel ill.
When Joe Biden was asked how he would respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, he championed his own experience. The former vice-president said that he led the Obama administration’s efforts to stop the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, “saving millions of lives.” He also said he would pressure China for greater transparency and access.
“I would be on the phone with China making it clear we are going to need to be in your country,” Biden said, raising his voice. “You have to be open. You have to be clear. We have to know what’s going on. We have to be there with you and insist on it and insist, insist, insist.”
China has only allowed a handful of U.S. health officials into the country to assist with the outbreak, and many health experts around the world have questioned the country’s transparency about the outbreak. President Trump, however, has repeatedly praised how President Xi Jinping has handled the crisis and has indicated that he trusts him. But according to a report from the Washington Post, Trump’s soft-line approach has been because he’s afraid Xi will not work with the U.S. if the Trump administration says anything negative about China.
“[Xi] feels very confident,” Trump said earlier this month as COVID-19 cases surged in China. That was also when the president passed along a dangerous assumption about the coronavirus when he added that, “[Xi] feels that … by April or during the month of April, the heat, generally speaking, kills this kind of virus.” Such a conclusion about the seasonality of the coronavirus is, at best, premature, and public-health experts later criticized the irresponsible statement.
Bernie Sanders brought Trump’s comment up on Tuesday night (after he had echoed some of what the other candidates had said):
In the White House today, we have a self-described great genius — self-described — and this great genius has told us that this coronavirus is going to end in two months. April is the magical date that this great scientist we have in the White House has determined — I wish I was kidding; that is what he said.
Trump quickly tweeted a response to the discussion, insisting that the CDC and his administration “are doing a GREAT job of handling Coronavirus.”
Watch the full segment when Klobuchar, Biden, and Sanders spoke about the coronavirus outbreak below: