The Financial Express

President Biden's thirty days in office

| Updated: February 25, 2021 20:37:18

--Joe Biden/BBC photo --Joe Biden/BBC photo

February 20, marks the first thirty days of the Biden Administration. It has inherited a caustic situation orchestrated by the previous administration which not only refused to accept the electoral outcome but resorted to violence to stall the peaceful transfer of power. Joe Biden, the newly elected president took the oath under a very special arrangement protected by a huge contingent of security forces.

President Biden declared containment of Covid-19 pandemic the top most priority of his administration. Though a transition team was engaged with the outgoing administration, nonetheless it was revealed that no reserved stock of vaccines existed to roll out. The administration hurriedly negotiated with the Pfizer and Moderna Pharmaceuticals and ordered procurement of 600 million doses to be available by July. It accelerated the delivery of the stocks the producers had with them and mobilised local administrations to deploy the staff to roll out vaccinations. Despite the befuddlement between the Health Department and medical staff assigned to administer the vaccination, as on 30th day of the new administration 60 million people have been vaccinated of whom 14 million received the second dose. Hospitalisation has declined from over 250,000 per day to less than 75,000 and mortality rate has attenuated to about 2,500. Biden had set a daily vaccination target of one million per day but during the past week the vaccination rate has surged to 1.8 million per day. It is expected that with the momentum generated entire population in the country would get the vaccine by end July.

Johnson and Johnson has the third vaccine which still awaits approval of the Food and Drug Administration. Once approved, the company has committed to deliver 100 million doses by June. It prescribes one dose and should be able to encompass the missing population in the hinterlands. Biden said, "It's not enough that we find cures for the Americans. There needs to be cures that world can take part in. You can't build walls or a fence high enough to keep a pandemic out."

At the meeting of the G7 leaders, Biden announced on Friday, February 19 that the United States will support the global push to distribute coronavirus vaccines among the developing countries and pledged $ 4 billion. The funding will give the much-needed boost to a programme jointly launched by Gavi, the vaccine alliance, the World Health Organisation and the Coalition of Epidemic Preparedness Innovations. The European leaders have launched the joint initiatives in combating the pandemic and pledged donations both in cash and kind. The US financial support is bound to create a momentum for vaccine production and distribution worldwide.

The pandemic has impacted all sectors of the US economy. The hotel industry has shut down since the outbreak of the pandemic and thousands of its employees were laid off. Small businesses including the restaurants were undergoing frequent lockdowns. The automobile industry suffered unprecedented decline in the sale of vehicles. The airlines remained out of operation for over six months. The land transportation was no better as interstate travel plummeted to the lowest level. Schools and colleges remained closed since March last year and the universities suspended in-person classes and conducted courses on line. The dorms of the universities have virtually been closed for the past one year. All these caused about 20 million people losing jobs though over the period some 10 million returned to jobs but with lesser hours of work and with reduced wages. On the top of it, half a million people have died as on February 20, 2021 leaving their loved ones and family members in terrible situations. It is estimated that about 60 million Americans are at the risk of hunger and poverty, finding it difficult to get food on the table.

The Biden Administration rightly decided to address this unprecedented calamity in a robust way. It formulated $1.9 trillion economic programme which includes payment of $1,400 checks to adults and $600 per child to families having an annual income no more than 150,000. It intends to provide funding to the states and cities to pay for the storage of covid vaccines and the costs required for inoculation of the vaccines, putting in place the safety protocols in order to reopen the schools, putting cash to small businesses to enable them to retain the workers in pay roll, expanding the Medicare and Medicaid until the Affordable Health Care Act is resurrected to serve the patients from low income families, extending the unemployment benefit till the middle of 2021 and raising the minimum hourly wage to $15.

The Republican members in the Congress have opposed the programme and argued that such a robust intervention would push the national debt over $22 trillion. Others have argued that families having annual income of over $350,000 had received the earlier stimulus checks and this was unwarranted. While the need for targeting the most desirable population is of paramount importance, under the current dire economic situation only a robust economic intervention could alleviate the sufferings of the affected population. Biden has embarked on wide ranging consultation with the law makers beyond the party lines and assured to accommodate reasonable proposals from any groups. His economic programme has received approval of 74 per cent of the population and the White House spokeswoman has rightly characterised the program as bi-partisan.

Republican law makers have expressed deep concern over the mounting national debt and suggested instead a package of $600 billion. They were, however, surprisingly quiet about national debt during the Republican administration. Increasing national debt is of course not a preferred option but when people are dying in thousands, hospitals are overwhelmed with Covid-19 affected patients and millions struggling hard to get the essential supplies for the families, a piecemeal relief package would hardly make a tangible impact on the dire situation. If targeting of assistance is improved and money is well spent on food, health care, social and medical infrastructures, inflation could be sustained at a modest level.

Biden has cautioned the world leaders on Friday, February 19 that "democratic process is under assault in much of the world, including the United States and Europe" telling the allies that America would challenge the authoritarians and seek diplomatic options for problems including Iran's nuclear ambitions. He sent an unambiguous message to the world, "America is back. The transatlantic alliance is back, and we are not looking backward, we are looking forward together." He reminded the audience that "Democracy doesn't happen by accident. We have to defend it, fight for it, strengthen it, renew it. We have to prove that our model isn't a relic of our history. It's the single best way to revitalise the promise of our future." Earlier in the month, Biden through executive orders abrogated Trumps several decisions and announced his administration's determinations to return to the Paris Climate Agreement, rejoin the World Health Organisation, return to assume the leadership of the NATO and reiterated the US commitment to 'two state solution' in Israel-Palestinian conflict.

John Kerry, Biden's special climate envoy apologised for American's absence from the global stage during the past four years and promised the US will work hard to make its actions match its promises. Expressing compunction, he said," we can't talk our way back into legitimacy. We have to earn our way back".

Lloyd Austin, the Defence Secretary, in his call to the NATO Secretary General reiterated that the United States was going to lead again and committed to be good teammates. In a recently published article Austin wrote, "collective security is a shared responsibility. Building a ready and capable force is inextricably linked to our work with allies and partners. Alliances are not burden: they are a benefit to our individual and collective security. Our shared principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law do not make us more vulnerable; they make us stronger as a team."

Biden wants to rejoin the Iran Nuclear Deal known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action but laid a precondition that Iran must cease uranium enrichment that violate the agreement. Iran, on the other hand, has urged the United States to make the first move by dropping the sanctions Trump had reimposed.

Biden knows better that Washington was at fault in withdrawing from the JCPOA and reimposing the sanctions was counterintuitive. This was an aberration of international commitment. Trump unsuccessfully pressured European partners to disengage with Iran. The sanctions impacted Iran's economy badly, its currency depreciated and export of oil and gas declined significantly. Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif maintained that nuclear enrichment activities were undertaken within the flexibility enshrined in the agreement and Iran did no violation. He argued it was the United States who had withdrawn from the agreement and it should make reparation. On the question of renegotiation of the JCPOA, Zarif argued that it was negotiated prior to imprimatur by Iran and 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, and it is due for implementation. Zarif, however, did not rule out the possibility of modification during the implementation of JCPOA.

Biden should recall that Iran was a few months away from making a bomb in 2015. JCPOA halted Iran's pursuit of uranium enrichment. Tehran was brought into economic partnership with EU countries. The US released $100 billion to Iran held up under sanction. The euphoria created was destroyed by US withdrawal from JCPOA. Now Biden can reverse the process and restore the confidence lost. By being intransigent he would allow Tehran to reach a point of no-return and push the region into a precipice.

Abdur Rahman Chowdhury is a former official of the United Nations.

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