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Coronavirus takes center stage at Democratic debate

Candidates cancel major campaign events
Candidates cancel major campaign events 02:00

The coronavirus took center stage at the 11th debate of the presidential primary season as Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders were tested on their approaches to the epidemic if they were president.

The outbreak's impact over daily life in the United States was evident from the outset of the debate, as Sanders and Biden opted for an elbow bump over a handshake before taking their places behind their respective podiums. The debate did not have a live audience and was moved last week from Arizona to CNN's studios in Washington, D.C., to limit the cross-country travel for the candidates and their campaigns.

Both candidates were pressed about how they would address the spread of the deadly virus and agreed it is vital to ensure hospitals have access to the equipment and tests needed. Americans, they said, should be protected from the economic fallout from the coronavirus, especially those who may find themselves out of work as businesses are forced to temporarily close their doors.

"This is bigger than any one of us," Biden said. "This calls for a national rallying of everybody together. 

Sanders, meanwhile, said President Trump should be silenced, as it is "unacceptable" for the president to be "blabbering with unfactual information, which is confusing the general public."

Biden, Sanders debate
Democratic presidential hopefuls former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (2R) and Senator Bernie Sanders (R) take part in the 11th Democratic Party 2020 presidential debate in a CNN Washington Bureau studio in Washington, D.C., on Sunday, March 15, 2020. Getty

Both Sanders and Biden also agreed that there is a role for the U.S. military to play as states rush to limit the spread of the coronavirus, of which there are more than 3,000 reported cases in the U.S.

"We use all of the tools that make sense," Sanders said.

Biden, too, said he would "call up the military now."

"They have the capacity to provide this surge help that hospitals need and that is needed across the nation," he said.

But the debate over how best to address the coronavirus also highlighted the policy differences between Biden and Sanders, particularly regarding health care. While Sanders is an ardent supporter of Medicare for All, Biden favors expanding and building upon the Affordable Care Act.

"Let's be honest and understand that this coronavirus pandemic exposes the incredible weaknesses and dysfunctionality of our current healthcare system" Sanders said.

Americans, Sanders added, should not have to worry about how to pay their medical bills.

"Bottom line here is, in terms of 'Medicare for All,' despite what the vice president is saying, what the experts tell us is that one of the reasons that we are unprepared and have been unprepared is we don't have a system," he said. "We've got thousands of private insurance plans. That is not a system that is prepared to provide healthcare to all people."
 
But Biden knocked Sanders' support of Medicare for All, noting that Italy, which has seen its health care system overwhelmed by the coronavirus, has a single-payer system. The country implemented a nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of the illness.

"The national crisis says, we're responding. It's all free. You don't have to pay for a thing," he said, referring to waiving medical costs during a public health crisis. "That has nothing to do with whether or not you have an insurance policy. This is a crisis. We're at war with the virus. We're at war with the virus. It has nothing to do with co-pays or anything." 
 
The two candidates also diverged on how best to mitigate the economic impacts of the coronavirus.
 
Sanders said the coronavirus outbreak demonstrates the need to address income and wealth inequality in the country with urgency.
 
"We have got to move aggressively right now," he said.
 
But Biden said the focus should be addressing the public health crisis first before moving to larger economic issues.
 
"People are looking for results, not a revolution," he said.
 
Both Biden and Sanders are at a higher risk of contracting the coronavirus due to their ages — Biden is 77 and Sanders is 78. To protect themselves, the two candidates said they are washing their hands frequently and using hand sanitizer liberally.
 
They have also directed their campaign staffs to work from home and are conducting virtual, rather than in-person campaign events.

Biden, Sanders debate
Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders on the debate stage Sunday, March 15, 2020. Getty
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