A Covid-19 patient

A Covid-19 patient lies in the ICU at Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital on February 1, 2021 in the Willowbrook neighborhood of southern Los Angeles County, California. (Photo: Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

'A Choice to Extend the Pandemic': Experts Slam Congress for Dropping Covid Aid

"The alternative to funding the fight today is to accept the pandemic extending into the future, with preventable suffering and insecurity for all," warned one public health advocate.

Experts warned Thursday that U.S. lawmakers' failure to swiftly pass coronavirus relief funds amounts to an active decision to prolong a pandemic that has killed nearly a million Americans--and 6 million people worldwide--over the past two years and continues to wreak global havoc.

"Congress must immediately restore the $5 billion in global Covid funding requested by the White House."

"Ending the pandemic is a choice," Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen's Access to Medicines program, wrote in a Twitter post. "Failing to fund the fight, as Congress [just did], is a choice to extend the pandemic."

Late Wednesday, the House of Representatives approved a $1.5 trillion omnibus spending package that, to the dismay of public health campaigners, excluded billions of dollars in Covid-19 aid that the Biden White House requested to carry out its coronavirus preparedness plan, which the administration has touted as a necessary effort to protect against new variants and bolster treatment and vaccination efforts.

The sprawling omnibus bill initially contained over $15 billion in coronavirus relief money--significantly less than the $22.5 billion the White House asked for--but the House Democratic leadership stripped the aid out of the bipartisan legislation at the last minute Wednesday after some rank-and-file Democrats objected to the GOP-backed funding mechanism, which would have repurposed pandemic aid allocated to states under an earlier stimulus law.

While devoid of Covid-19 funding, the omnibus legislation does contain $782 billion in U.S. military spending, $29 billion more than President Joe Biden requested back in May.

In recent weeks, federal health officials have sounded the alarm over funding shortfalls that are hampering the Biden administration's pandemic response, including its attempts to acquire treatment courses and expand vaccination campaigns at home and abroad.

A Public Citizen analysis released Tuesday warned that without a "surge of funding," the U.S. will likely miss its modest target of donating more than a billion coronavirus vaccine doses to the world by the end of September.

The consequences of congressional inaction on pandemic relief could also have disastrous effects in the U.S., where Covid-19 is still killing more than 1,300 people each day on average.

"People just aren't getting it," one unnamed health official lamented in an interview with Politico on Wednesday. "If more funding doesn't come, Americans will be without the vaccines, treatments, and tests they will need if we have another surge or variant--or even if we don't."

Kevin Munoz, a White House spokesperson, publicly warned Wednesday that "failing to take action now will have severe consequences for the American people," potentially imperiling ongoing research and preparedness efforts.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) vowed at a press conference late Wednesday that Democrats will continue working to pass Covid-19 relief funding as a separate piece of legislation and blamed Republicans for the removal of the aid from the omnibus bill, which the Senate must pass by midnight Friday to avert a government shutdown.

"The administration's request is essential," Pelosi said. "It's really important because it's about our global responsibilities, yes, but in addition to that, it's about therapies that are early interventions into Covid... Sadly, the Republicans insisted that every penny for Covid be offset. And again, we fought to make sure that they didn't take any money out of the pockets of localities, but they did insist that it come out of the states."

Any attempt to pass coronavirus relief funding in a standalone measure would likely continue running into opposition from the Republican Party, which--as long as the 60-vote legislative filibuster remains--has effective veto power in the evenly divided Senate.

Last week, three dozen Republican senators led by Mitt Romney of Utah wrote in a letter to the White House that "it is not yet clear why additional funding is needed" to battle the coronavirus pandemic--an indication that they would likely block a new aid measure.

Robert Weissman, the president of Public Citizen, said in a statement Thursday that "at a minimum, Congress must immediately restore the $5 billion in global Covid funding requested by the White House to the omnibus spending package."

"That money is the minimum needed to fund global vaccination, testing, and emergency relief to stop the spread of Covid-19," Weissman added. "The alternative to funding the fight today is to accept the pandemic extending into the future, with preventable suffering and insecurity for all, and to live with the knowledge that, deep in the time of the world's greatest need, the United States gave up."

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