Coronavirus: Trump feeling the heat after cutting funds for disease centre

White House criticised after slashing budgets for agencies that tackle outbreaks over past two years

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The White House has unveiled a $2.5 billion plan to fight coronavirus, but President Donald Trump has been criticised for sweeping cuts to key government departments that handle virus emergencies.

Critics say budget cuts over the past two years in key government agencies is hampering the country's response to the disease as it spreads around the world.

On top of the $2.5bn (Dh9.18bn), Mr Trump is also asking Congress to approve $1.8bn in funding to tackle a threat that has led shares on Wall Street to plummet as alarm grows.

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 25: Traders work through the closing minutes of trading Tuesday on the New York Stock Exchange floor on February 25, 2020 in New York City. Fueled by deepening concerns of the Coronavirus becoming a global pandemic, the stock market plunged Tuesday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average losing almost 900 points.   Scott Heins/Getty Images/AFP
Fuelled by increasing concerns of the coronavirus becoming a global pandemic, the stock market plunged on Tuesday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average losing almost 900 points. Getty Images via AFP

His plea was described as "too little, too late" by Chuck Schumer, the leader of the Democrat Senate minority in the Senate.

So far there have been 36 confirmed cases of the virus, officially called Covid-19, reported in the US.

But there are fears that the disease, which has killed 2,700 people around the world, could spread rapidly without clear measures.

Nancy Messonnier, head of immunisation at the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, warned that the coronavirus could cause "severe disruption" to the lives of ordinary Americans.

"Ultimately, we expect we will see community spread in this country," Ms Messonnier said.

Coronavirus: What is a pandemic?

Coronavirus: What is a pandemic?

"It's not so much a question of if this will happen any more, but rather more exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness."

Her agency has been particularly badly hit by the Trump administration's determination to slash spending.

In January 2018, the centre said it would cut back or discontinue work it had been doing to prevent epidemics in 39 countries.

We've seen no sign that President Trump has any plan or urgency to deal with the spread of the coronavirus – we need real leadership

The work had been funded in a $582 million package put in place by the Obama administration to tackle the Ebola outbreak in 2014-2015.

Mr Trump's administration decided against renewing the package and it expired at the end of last year.

In May 2018, John Bolton, then the administration's national security adviser, shut down the team responsible for co-ordinating the US response to a global health emergency.

Mr Bolton's "streamlining" of his department led to the abrupt departure of Rear Admiral Timothy Ziemer, who ran the unit and had worked for presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama.

At the same time, Mr Trump cut $30m from the State Department's Complex Crises Fund; money that was used for experts as emergencies erupted.

There is a growing sense that the administration has been caught flat-footed by the coronavirus crisis, especially after the centre was forced to stop distributing testing kits because they were found to be flawed.

Thus far, only 12 states and localities have working kits after the centre admitted that it had identified "performance issues".

If the cuts were not damaging enough, finding places to quarantine coronavirus patients is also proving a challenge. Politicians are resisting moves to have isolation centres in their areas.

Costa Mesa, a city of 113,000 south of Los Angeles, has even gone to court to try to block patients being housed at a residential area within its boundaries.

"We're a compassionate community but we are not going to continue to be the place where everybody drops off their crises and expects us to correct it," Mayor Katrina Foley said at the weekend.

Democrats have been swift to attack the administration's response.

"We've seen no sign that President Trump has any plan or urgency to deal with the spread of the coronavirus," Mr Schumer said.

"We need real leadership and we need it fast."

Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, was similarly scathing, especially given the administration planned to impose further cuts on the centre and the National Institute for Health next year.

"Americans need a co-ordinated, fully funded, whole-of-government response to keep them and their loved ones safe," Ms Pelosi said.

"The President's request for coronavirus response funding is long overdue and completely inadequate to the scale of this emergency."

Democratic presidential candidates lined up to attack Mr Trump during the latest televised debate.

"This great genius has told us that this coronavirus is going to end in two months," Bernie Sanders said. "I wish I was kidding."

Inevitably, Mr Trump responded on Twitter.

"Democrats' talking point is that we are doing badly," he said. "If the virus disappeared tomorrow, they would say we did a really poor and even incompetent, job.

"Not fair, but it is what it is. So far, by the way, we have not had one death. Let's keep it that way."