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US Declares an ‘Emergency’ to Fight Coronavirus. Here’s What That Means.

US Declares an ‘Emergency’ to Fight Coronavirus. Here’s What That Means.

New Delhi: US President Donald Trump declared a ‘national emergency’ on Friday to combat the spread of coronavirus.

Till Sunday, the US has reported that 2,759 persons have tested positive for coronavirus, with 59 deaths so far. The first reported patient with coronavirus in the US was on January 21.

Here is a quick primer on the US president’s emergency powers and what they actually mean.

What are the legal provisions to declare a national emergency in the US?

The US constitution does not explicitly specify how a state of emergency may be suspended and what it entails in terms of the suspension of rights. Rather, it is the US Congress that has the power to deal with urgent threats, including the power to suspend the writ of habeas corpus.

However, US presidents have traditionally claimed that the role of commander-in-chief of the armed forces and executive powers vested in them give them “inherent emergency powers”, as an article in The Atlantic explains. With the Supreme Court often hesitating to intervene during the declaration of these emergencies, “the outer boundary of the president’s constitutional authority during emergencies remains poorly defined”.

Over the decades, the US Congress has passed laws that gave additional power to the president, including statutes that were only activated when the chief executive declared an emergency.

In order to regulate the unwieldy system, the National Emergencies Act was enacted in 1976, which allows the president to formally declare an emergency and to specify which statutory authority was activated.

Also read: Italians Urge Scientists Everywhere to Convince Governments to Lockdown

How many times has the US declared a state of national emergency?

Before Trump’s latest directive, seven US presidents had declared national emergencies 63 times under the 1976 Act, according to the Brennan Centre for Justice. The New York-based organised identified 136 statutory powers that are available for a US president to activate by declaration of national emergency.

With the COVID-19 outbreak declaration, the US has 34 current emergencies, which are renewed every year. The oldest one still active is from November 1979, when Jim Carter ordered the freezing of Iranian government properties during the Iran hostage crisis.

In most cases, presidents invoked emergency powers to impose sanctions on foreign countries, entities or individuals. A distant second motivation was for trade regulations. Military action has been authorised through these emergency powers only twice – after 9/11 and to build a border wall in 2019.

What happens when the US president uses emergency powers?

When a president declares a national emergency, he suddenly has more than 136 special provisions available on his fingertips.

They range from allowing members of the coast guard to serve as notaries public to freezing foreign assets or financial transactions, taking over communications and even suspending the prohibition on involuntary testing of chemical and biological agents on human subjects. 

Also read: Coronavirus in Photos: Empty Public Spaces, Masked Selfies, Muted Panic Unites World

What laws has Trump activated with this latest emergency?

On March 31, Trump invoked emergency powers under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, which is largely about empowering the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) during natural disasters and catastrophe.

An emergency as defined by this Act means “any occasion or instance for which, in the determination of the President, Federal assistance is needed to supplement State and local efforts and capabilities to save lives and to protect property and public health and safety, or to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe in any part of the United States”.

As per reports, the Stafford Act will help states tap into federal funding controlled by FEMA to the tune of $42.6 billion.

The last time that an emergency was declared by the president for public health reasons was by Barack Obama in 2009 during the swine flu pandemic, but he didn’t invoke the Stafford Act. It was done under the Public Health Service Act, which waived some federal health insurance rules.

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