‘We have to act’: Biden unveils $1.9 trillion COVID stimulus plan

Package includes $415bn to boost response to COVID-19 and vaccine release, as well as $1,400 cheques to individuals.

President-elect Joe Biden says the US is in the middle of a 'once-in-several-generations economic crisis' [Matt Slocum/AP Photo]

United States President-elect Joe Biden has unveiled a $1.9 trillion stimulus package proposal designed to jump-start the economy and speed up the US response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden campaigned last year on a promise to take the pandemic more seriously than President Donald Trump and the package aims to put that pledge into action with an influx of resources for the coronavirus response and economic recovery.

“It’s not hard to see that we’re in the middle of a once-in-several-generations economic crisis with a once-in-several-generations public health crisis. A crisis of deep human suffering is in plain sight and there’s no time to waste,” Biden said in a prime-time address on Thursday evening. “We have to act and we have to act now.”

Details of the aid package were released by Biden’s transition team earlier on Thursday.

It includes $415bn to bolster the response to the virus and the release of COVID-19 vaccines, some $1 trillion in direct relief to households and roughly $440bn for small businesses and communities particularly hard hit by the pandemic.

Stimulus payment checks would be issued for $1,400 – topping up the $600 cheques issued under the last congressional stimulus legislation. Supplemental unemployment insurance would also increase to $400 a week from $300 a week now and would be extended to September.

Long lines at food banks like this one at Los Angeles Boys & Girls Club in the Lincoln Heights neighbourhood of Los Angeles are still commonplace as millions of US families continue to struggle with job losses and reduced hours stemming from the pandemic [File: Jae C Hong/AP Photo]

Biden’s plan is meant to kick off his time in office with a large bill that sets his short-term agenda into motion quickly: helping the economy and getting a handle on a virus that has killed more than 385,000 people in the US.

It also provides a sharp contrast with Trump, who spent the last months of his administration seeking to undermine Biden’s election victory rather than focusing on additional coronavirus relief. Trump, who leaves office on Wednesday, did support $2,000 payments to Americans, however.

Many Republicans in Congress balked at the price tag for such payments and Biden will face similar hurdles with his proposals, though he will be helped by the fact that his fellow Democrats will control the House and the Senate.

“Incoming President Joe Biden has today proposed an additional fiscal stimulus worth $1.9 trillion, or close to 9 percent of [gross domestic product], but we suspect that, even though the Democrats now narrowly control the Senate too, any package eventually passed by Congress will be half that size or less,” Paul Ashworth, chief US economist at research firm Capital Economics, said in a note sent to Al Jazeera.

The incoming president will seek to pass the legislation even as his predecessor faces an impeachment trial.

The Democratic-led House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump on Wednesday, making him the first president in US history to be impeached twice. Ten of his fellow Republicans joined Democrats to charge him with inciting an insurrection in last week’s deadly rampage at the Capitol.

The impeachment proceedings threaten to hang over the beginning of Biden’s term and Biden has encouraged legislators to handle the trial while also moving forward with his agenda.

‘Precarious moment’

Transition officials said the plan will be a rescue package that will be followed up with another recovery package in the coming weeks.

“We’re at a very precarious moment for our economy,” one of the officials told the Reuters news agency.

The aid package includes $415bn to bolster the response to the virus and the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines [File:Yuki Iwamura/Reuters]

The plan would extend moratoriums on foreclosures and evictions until September and include funding for rental and utility assistance.

The package includes an increase in the national minimum wage to $15 an hour and assistance to fight hunger.

The coronavirus relief-related funds will go towards a national vaccine programme, testing, investments for workers to do vaccine outreach and contact tracing, and money for states.

The Democratic president-elect said last week the stimulus package would be “in the trillions of dollars” and argued that more spending early on would reduce the long-term economic damage from the shutdowns spurred by the pandemic.

He also said there would be “billions of dollars” to speed up vaccine distribution, along with money to help reopen schools and for state and local governments to avoid laying off teachers, police officers and health workers.

Pandemic-related shutdowns and restrictions have cost millions of US jobs.

The Biden plan – if enacted – would buy more time for the economy to bridge the period until the distribution of vaccines allows for a wider resumption of economic activity.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies