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News Brief: Pandemic Status, Asian American Hate Crimes Bill, Infrastructure

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The coronavirus is an equal opportunity hazard. Anybody can get it. Right? But even at this late stage of the pandemic, it's revealing a less-than-equal-opportunity world.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We've known for many months of differences between racial groups. There are also differences between countries. At this point, most Americans have shots. But this week, India set a world record for daily COVID infections, more than 330,000 infections in a single country in a single day. Brazil set a new record for daily deaths in that country.

MARTIN: We've got NPR global health correspondent Jason Beaubien with us this morning. Hi, Jason.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.

MARTIN: Can you just give us the overall picture around the world of the pandemic?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, it really varies from place to place. But, you know, here we are well over a year into this. And in some parts of the world, not only is it really bad, it's the worst yet in the pandemic.

MARTIN: OK, so we referenced Brazil. We referenced India. Where else?

BEAUBIEN: Well, you know, there are at least nine countries that are reporting new daily COVID tallies that are at all-time highs and rising. And that includes India, Turkey, Iran, the Philippines, several places in South America - Chile, Argentina, Peru. You know, in some of these countries, ICU beds are completely full. India is running incredibly low on bottled oxygen, which is desperately needed to treat patients with these severe cases.

MARTIN: What's to account for what's happening in India, Jason?

BEAUBIEN: You know, scientists are still trying to piece together what could be driving this sudden rise. They were down at incredible lows in February. Bhramar Mukherjee, she's a statistical modeler at the University of Michigan. She says COVID variants may be a part of it.

BHRAMAR MUKHERJEE: Many multiple unknown variants emerging in the Indian landscape. And we really are very concerned because we need more data. Where are they emerging, and how rapidly are they replacing the original strain?

BEAUBIEN: And then you've got other large countries like Brazil, which have backed off of their record highs, but their daily infections have plateaued at these really significantly high levels.

MARTIN: Does COVID fatigue, frankly, have anything to do with this? Are people just not paying as much attention to what they should be doing?

BEAUBIEN: You know, that could be part of it. You know, countries - some countries have backed off of some of the social distancing measures. You know, they're trying to get their economies going. But the thing is about this virus, it keeps surprising health officials and it keeps exploiting any opportunity it seems to find to spread. I was talking with Jennifer Nuzzo, a senior scholar over at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, and she says it looks very grim in many parts of the world right now.

JENNIFER NUZZO: I am worried. Right now, we're talking about Latin America, we're talking about India, but, you know, we could be talking about Africa in the coming weeks to months. I think what India is teaching us is that this situation is not over and that countries remain vulnerable until they're able to vaccinate their populations. But unfortunately, there's just simply not enough vaccines to achieve those goals.

BEAUBIEN: And one of the big problems from a global perspective is that India is one of the largest producers of vaccines. And with this current surge, they've slapped in place an export bans on vaccines as they try to address their domestic problem. And that's led to vaccine supply problems elsewhere.

MARTIN: I mean, speaking of vaccine supply problems, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has had these issues, and it's been put on pause. Can you just give us an update on where that stands?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. So the CDC and the FDA, they've been reviewing about a half a dozen cases of blood clots among 7 million people in the United States who've gotten the vaccine. Given how rare these side effects are, the expectation is that U.S. regulators today are going to lift the temporary pause that's been in place on the J&J vaccine. European officials, they lifted the pause earlier this week. You know, that's all good news. Nuzzo over at Hopkins, she says getting Johnson & Johnson back into the mix is extremely important as the world deals with more and more variants of the virus.

NUZZO: Like it or not, we live in a global world. The emergence and spread of the variants raise the possibility that there could be new strains that could overcome our vaccines.

BEAUBIEN: So far, we haven't seen that, but it is a possibility. And, you know, she adds that the urgency to the moral argument to try to get other countries to combat their epidemics.

MARTIN: NPR global health correspondent Jason Beaubien, thank you.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

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MARTIN: All right. So there was a rare moment of bipartisanship in the Senate yesterday.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Lawmakers voted 94-1 - 94-1 - to approve a bill that would fight hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The one no vote was Missouri Republican Josh Hawley - said the law was too broad. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the legislation sends a message.

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CHUCK SCHUMER: We will not tolerate bigotry against you, and to those perpetrating anti-Asian bigotry, we will pursue you to the fullest extent of the law.

MARTIN: NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales is covering this and joins us now. Claudia, thanks for being here. I mean, this is just not a word we use a lot right now, bipartisanship, is it?

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Yes. You could even hear the surprise in some of the senators' voices, including the bill's sponsor, Hawaii Democrat Mazie Hirono. She said, quote, "unprovoked, random attacks are happening in our streets, restaurants, basically wherever we are." These are part of these impassioned arguments we heard from both sides of the aisle about the spike in discrimination and violent attacks in the wake of the pandemic. Another Democrat from Illinois, Tammy Duckworth, a combat Army veteran, said her mom, who is of Asian origin, just experienced this kind of discrimination in a grocery store recently. And she said she herself is not immune either.

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TAMMY DUCKWORTH: And I've had that happen to me while wearing the uniform of this nation with her flag on my shoulder and asked, where are you from, really? Yeah, your dad has been here since before the revolution, but where are you from? This tells the AAPI community we see you and we will stand with you and we will protect you.

GRISALES: And we heard arguments from Republicans as well. This includes Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is married to former Cabinet Secretary Elaine Chao. He called this a, quote, "real problem."

MARTIN: So this is a powerful symbol, obviously, but what does the legislation actually do, Claudia?

GRISALES: It incentivizes police to better track and deter instances of hate crimes through grant programs. It also calls on the Justice Department to initiate a review of these cases across the country. It directs new online reporting requirements and an expansion of public awareness campaigns. And it includes a bipartisan provision. This was authored by Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal and Kansas GOP Senator Jerry Moran. It will allow alternative sentences where defendants can do community service in neighborhoods that were harmed by their actions.

MARTIN: So the Senate was able to come together to pass this particular bill. But is this an outlier or could it actually portend more cooperation?

GRISALES: It could. Some members really hope so. Senators are pointing to more bipartisan legislation they'll take up soon, such as new efforts to boost U.S. competitiveness with China. But they're facing some really tall orders on police reform, gun legislation, immigration and infrastructure. And the Senate's No. 2, Republican John Thune, said in some ways, the Senate got off on the wrong foot with a massive COVID relief bill that was approved without GOP support. And his hope is that they can get back on track.

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JOHN THUNE: It's encouraging to see the Senate working the way it should - senators from both parties talking, negotiating, coming together to work out legislation that both parties can support.

GRISALES: So he encouraged the Senate to get back to this theme of unity that kicked off President Biden's presidency. But they're so far apart on so many issues, it's unclear right now whether that can happen.

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MARTIN: NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales. Claudia, your timer's going off.

GRISALES: It is. Thanks (laughter).

MARTIN: Thank you.

All right. So speaking of things that are hard to get bipartisan compromise on, let's talk about infrastructure. Senate Republicans have come up with their own version of an infrastructure plan to counter President Biden's.

INSKEEP: Yeah, the Senate Republicans would like their five-year plan to be a starting point for bipartisan talks. The Republican $568 billion proposal includes money for roads and bridges and other items. Republicans have made a big issue of the expanse of Biden's proposal because Biden's proposal includes infrastructure items like water pipes or renewable energy that Republicans at this time, unlike some others, prefer not to classify as infrastructure. Biden's proposal for the price tag, anyway, is four times larger.

MARTIN: All right. NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell is following this and joins us now. Hey, Kelsey.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi there.

MARTIN: Tell us more about what Republicans are proposing.

SNELL: You know, as you said, this is all about traditional infrastructure. And that's something they brought up over and over is this definition of infrastructure. But they say it's all about also getting a deal. This is Shelley Moore Capito from West Virginia, who's leading the efforts. This is how she framed the outline.

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SHELLEY MOORE CAPITO: Our focus today is to say what our concepts are, as Republicans, as what infrastructure means, what our principles are in terms of pay force and then say to President Biden and his team and our Democrat colleagues, we're ready to sit down and get to work on this.

SNELL: So they say they want that kind of bipartisanship that, you know, they're starting to talk about a little bit more in the Senate. And the plan puts the bulk of the money, about $299 billion, for just roads and bridges. Other areas include public transit, rail, waste and drinking water, airports and broadband. You know, the Biden plan really does have a much broader definition of infrastructure, and that includes everything from home health care workers to child care.

MARTIN: So, Kelsey, a big part of what Republicans don't like about the Biden plan is the price tag and the taxes that will have to go up to help pay for it. How are Republicans planning to pay for their own counterproposal?

SNELL: You know, it's not totally clear. They talked about redirecting money Congress has already agreed to spend through appropriations to some other things, and they talked about fees. But I think it's notable that they talked about what shouldn't be used. They said no corporate or international tax hikes and no changes to the 2017 tax cut. So they're basically ruling out all of the ways Democrats want to pay for their infrastructure plan. Though I will say that this was a two-page outline. So it wasn't particularly detailed. And they framed it as the starting point of negotiation.

MARTIN: A starting point. So are Democrats taking it that way?

SNELL: Some are. And the reactions kind of range from wait and see from people like Joe Manchin of West Virginia to Bernie Sanders, who is the chairman of the Budget Committee, calling it totally inadequate, so not a terribly warm start for this bill. You know, they basically need to agree first on what infrastructure is before they can actually start on negotiating details. One idea Democrats have floated, though, is to write a couple of bills, one that has all the bipartisan elements and that can clear the filibuster in the Senate. And then another one with the not-so-easy parts Democrats can just do on their own.

MARTIN: So what kind of time frame are we looking at here for actually writing a bill that could get passed?

SNELL: They really aren't even setting those goals right now, which is a sign that this is not going to be some sort of breakneck legislation like the COVID bills. You know, it is common for things like this to take a long time, particularly if they follow Capito's plan of empowering committees. So this is realistically something that could go most of the summer, maybe longer.

MARTIN: NPR congressional correspondent Kelsey Snell. Thank you so much, Kelsey.

SNELL: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.