Trump says he will invoke wartime act to fight 'enemy' coronavirus

US President Donald Trump moved on Wednesday to accelerate production of desperately needed medical equipment to battle the coronavirus pandemic and said an estimate that US unemployment could conceivably reach 20 percent was a worst case scenario.
Trump answers a question during a daily briefing on Covid-19 at the White House.
Trump answers a question during a daily briefing on Covid-19 at the White House.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US President Donald Trump moved on Wednesday (March 18) to accelerate production of desperately needed medical equipment to battle the coronavirus pandemic and said an estimate that US unemployment could conceivably reach 20 per cent was a worst-case scenario.

Scrambling to address the virus after initially downplaying it, Trump said he is invoking the Defence Production Act, putting in place a law that will allow the US government to speed production of masks, respirators, ventilators and other equipment needs.

"We're going to defeat the invisible enemy," said Trump, who said the unfolding crisis had basically made him a "war-time president".

Trump said he would invoke another law that would allow US authorities to turn back migrants seeking to cross the southern border of the United States illegally. The border will not be closed, he said.

Trump said a hospital ship will be sent to hard-hit New York to help people affected by the contagion, and that a second hospital ship will be deployed to the West Coast.

He defended his description of the coronavirus as "the Chinese virus" despite concerns among some Americans that he was making an ethnic slur.

"It's not racist, not at all. It comes from China," he said of the illness whose origin has been traced back to Wuhan, China.

Trump, appearing in the White House briefing room for what has now become a daily news conference with his coronavirus task force, said he would sign the Defence Production Act later on Wednesday.

The law, which dates back to the Korean War of the 1950s, grants the president broad authority to "expedite and expand the supply of resources from the US industrial base to support military, energy, space, and homeland security programmes,"according to a summary on the Federal Emergency Management Agency website.

"We will be invoking the Defense Production Act just in case we need it," said Trump.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin fanned fears of economic collapse on Wednesday by telling lawmakers on Capitol Hill that 20 per cent unemployment was an extreme possibility should the virus have devastating effects on American businesses, many of which are already under duress.

 
 
 

"That's an absolute total worst case scenario," said Trump.

"We're nowhere near it."

Vice-President Mike Pence, head of the coronavirus task force, urged all Americans to put off elective surgery to allow hospitals to concentrate on the rising influx of patients with the Covid-19 respiratory illness caused by the new virus.

Deborah Birx, a member of the task force, urged young people to adhere to government guidelines, calling for a 15-day effort to slow the spread of the virus.

Young people are considered key transmitters of the virus, which can be passed along even with mild or no symptoms.

There are now more than 7,000 US cases of the illness and over 100 deaths.