Joe Biden warns final US death toll from Covid will be 'well over 600,000'

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Nick Allen
·5 min read
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US President Joe Biden speaking about his administration's response to the economic crisis on January 22 - Ken Cedeno/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock 
US President Joe Biden speaking about his administration's response to the economic crisis on January 22 - Ken Cedeno/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Joe Biden has warned the final death toll from the coronavirus pandemic in the United States will be "well over 600,000”.

It also emerged that between 150 and 200 of the 25,000 National Guard soldiers deployed to Washington following the US Capitol riots on Jan 6 had tested positive for the virus.

Mr Biden said on Friday: "A lot of America is hurting. The virus is surging. We're 400,000 dead, expected to reach well over 600,000.

"Families are going hungry, people are at risk of being evicted, job losses are mounting again. We need to act.”

He ordered an expansion of government food aid to counter the worst hunger crisis the US has seen in modern times.

On his third day in the job the new president issued executive orders increasing sustenance assistance, speeding up stimulus payments, and laying the groundwork for a $15 minimum wage for government workers and contractors.

Mr Biden said: "The crisis is only deepening. It's not getting better, it's deepening. A lot of folk are waiting hours in their cars to feed their children at a food bank. In the United States of America. This cannot be who we are as a country.”

He said the government had a "moral obligation" and an "economic imperative" to help.

Mr Biden, speaking at the White House, said: "We must act decisively and boldly. We need to tackle the growing hunger crisis in America."

He said more than one in seven US households reported not having enough food to eat. That was 30 million adults and 12 million children.

Mr Biden said: "It's unconscionable. Families literally can't wait another day."

US unemployment benefit applications jumped by another 1.3 million applications last week.

Mr Biden has argued that recovery from the initially catastrophic plunge in the US economy after the pandemic first hit last year is faltering.

Nearly 10 million jobs have been lost since last February, and nearly 30 million households lack secure access to food.

The Commerce Department reported in mid-December that 13.7 percent of adults live in households where they sometimes or often do not have enough to eat.

It has been warned that hunger is becoming a threat to millions of poorer children who relied on meals served by their schools which are now shut.

Mr Biden's orders boosted an existing payout, giving a family with three children an extra $100 every two months to supplement grocery shopping.

Other measures included asking the Treasury to hasten stimulus payments of up to $600 per person that were already approved under Donald Trump.

Brian Deese, Director of M Biden's National Economic Council, said: "We are at a precarious moment in our economy. The American people cannot afford to wait. So many are hanging by a thread.

"They need help and we're committed to doing everything we can to provide that help as quickly as possible."

Mr Biden will also seek to allow workers to get unemployment benefits if they quit jobs because of fears about the coronavirus.

A White House official said: "Workers have a federally guaranteed right to refuse employment that will jeopardise their health, and if they do so, they will still qualify for unemployment insurance.'

Mr Biden's executive orders were far short of the actions he has called for from Congress.

His main initiative to turn the economy around is a $1.9 trillion relief package.

Mr Deese said: "Much, much more is needed. And so that's why, as we take these actions, we will continue to engage with Congress.'

Mr Biden's also restored collective bargaining rights to US government employees, and moved toward providing them with paid emergency leave.

Mr Deese said: "These steps are designed to help ensure the federal government is a model employer."

Republicans lambasted Mr Biden for the executive orders he has issued in his first three days.

He has already signed orders for the US to rejoin the Paris climate accord and blocked the Keystone pipeline, among others.

Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, said: "On the Biden administration's very first day it took several big steps in the wrong direction."

He called on Mr Biden to "remember that he does not owe his election to the far left."

Read more: What executive orders has Joe Biden signed?

Mr Biden has made calls for unity but Republicans objected to his early policies.

Mr McConnell said: "If and when our Democratic friends depart from common sense, when they retreat from common ground, when their proposals would harm the common good, then we’ll use the power the American people have given us to push for what is right.

"The president can and should refocus his administration on creating good-paying American jobs, not sacrificing our people's livelihoods to liberal symbolism."

Meanwhile, the White House said it had no timeline for a post-Brexit UK-US trade deal.

Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said: "I can't give you a timeline. I will say that what is important to the president...everything we do must help advance working families and the American middle class, and that certainly includes any trade agreements.

"At this point in time we're working to get the pandemic under control and provide economic relief to the American public.

"We, of course, can do multiple things at the same time but those are our primary priorities at this point."

Mr Biden on Friday night made his first phone calls as president to fellow leaders, with the first being Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Mr Trudeau and Mr Biden made plans to meet in person "next month," the Canadian leader's office said.

Mr Trudeau said earlier on Friday that he would express concern about the cancellation of the Keystone pipeline, an $8 billion project involving both countries.

He said: "Obviously the decision on Keystone is a very difficult one for workers in Alberta and Saskatchewan who've had many difficult hits over the past years.

"I will express my concern for jobs and livelihoods in Canada, particularly in the West, directly in my conversation with President Biden."

On Friday, Lloyd Austin, a retired Army general, was confirmed by the Senate as Mr Biden's defence secretary. He became America's first black defence secretary.