Coronavirus dominates early stage of the Biden-Sanders Democratic debate

Key Points
  • Coronavirus dominated the early stages of the 2020 Democratic debate between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. 
  • In a somber event with no live audience, the White House hopefuls portrayed themselves as better equipped to handle the crisis than President Donald Trump. 
  • While the candidates agreed on the need for free care and economic relief, Biden criticized Sanders' argument that "Medicare for All" would help to solve the crisis.
Democratic presidential hopefuls former US vice president Joe Biden (L) and Senator Bernie Sanders take part in the 11th Democratic Party 2020 presidential debate in a CNN Washington Bureau studio in Washington, DC on March 15, 2020.
Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders aimed to project preparedness to mitigate the coronavirus pandemic in a presidential debate Sunday night dominated by a crisis that has upended life and rattled economies around the globe. 

The specter of the outbreak hovered over the event. The former vice president and Vermont senator spoke from podiums in CNN's Washington studio with no live audience, giving the debate a sober air. The Democratic White House hopefuls bumped elbows before the event started in lieu of a handshake. 

After a day in which President Donald Trump celebrated the Federal Reserve's emergency intervention and told Americans to "relax," both candidates to replace him portrayed themselves as better crisis managers than the incumbent. In a more than 30-minute block of debate on coronavirus, both Biden and Sanders called for free care for people who get COVID-19 and a sprawling package to protect Americans who lose their jobs or face economic hardship because of the pandemic. 

Biden spent time highlighting the coronavirus response plan his campaign released. He also looked to undercut one of Sanders' core arguments during the crisis: that a universal "Medicare for All" health care plan would equip consumers to afford care for the coronavirus. 

"It has nothing to do with Medicare for All. That does not solve the problem at all," he said. 

Sanders, for his part, said "this coronavirus pandemic exposes the incredible weakness and dysfunctionality of our current health care system." After Biden highlighted a free testing provision in a bill passed by the House early Saturday as evidence that the U.S. does not need a single-payer system, the senator said it has "enormous loopholes." 

During the coronavirus portion of the event, at least, the event notably lacked the sniping and interruptions seen in recent debates before the Democratic presidential field shrank to essentially Biden and Sanders. The two rivals agreed on the need for a massive economic response to protect Americans walloped by the pandemic. 

Biden called for a "major, major bailout package" that rewards "individuals" rather than corporations. Meanwhile, Sanders said "our job right now is to tell every working person in this country, no matter what your income is, you are not going to suffer as a result of this crisis."

Nearly 3,000 coronavirus cases have been reported in the U.S. as the disease rapidly spreads, and it has killed at least 57 people, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. As schools close and cities and states crack down on large public gatherings, the pandemic has ground in-person presidential campaigning to a halt. 

While the four states — Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio — holding primaries on Tuesday are moving forward with their presidential nominating events, Louisiana and Georgia have both delayed voting.

The septuagenarian candidates, who are in a higher risk age group for coronavirus, were also asked about what they have done personally to avoid the disease. Both men highlighted the fact that they are washing their hands more, have stopped holding rallies and had their campaign staff work from home. 

Sanders, who survived a heart attack last year, also pointed to the odd greeting the two men exchanged at the start of the debate. 

"Joe and I did not shake hands," he said.

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