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The coronavirus pandemic is battering the world’s major economies and could trigger the deepest global recession in generations, experts warned Wednesday, as rising death tolls in Europe and the US dampened hopes for a quick turnaround.
While the Chinese city where the virus was born has been released from its nearly 11-week lockdown, much of the West remains in the throes of a crisis that has killed more than 80,000 people worldwide.
The hardest-hit countries, among them Italy, Spain, France and the US, are wrestling with how to balance public safety with the devastating impact of lockdowns that have shuttered whole sectors of the economy and erased millions of jobs in a matter of weeks.
The economic forecasts are dire.
The fallout “may well be the deepest economic recession or downturn of our lifetimes”, warned the chief the World Trade Organization, Roberto Azevedo.
Global trade growth could fall by up to a third this year, the WTO said.
France has already recorded its worst economic performance since 1945 during the first quarter, shrinking some 6%.
Germany’s economy, the biggest in Europe, is also expected to fall into a “serious recession” and contract by nearly 10% in the second quarter, leading researchers warned.
Yet health experts stressed it is too early to loosen restrictions.
They say premature moves could accelerate the spread of a disease that has already infiltrated every layer of society, from refugees to royals to Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who was reported to be “stable” during his third day in intensive care.
“Now is not the time to relax measures. It is the time to once again double and triple our collective efforts to drive towards suppression with the whole support of society,” said the World Health Organization’s Europe director Hans Kluge.
‘Stuck for 77 days’
In the ground-zero Chinese city of Wuhan, which led the world with its unprecedented lockdown in January, strict measures appear to have paid off.
After a months-long travel ban was finally lifted, tens of thousands of people fled the city in joyous scenes that contrasted with the macabre mood around much of the world – even if some passengers were travelling in hazmat suits.
“I’ve been stuck for 77 days! I’ve been stuck for 77 days!” shouted one man heading back to his home province of Hunan by train.
Yet not all is back to normal, with schools still closed and travel discouraged.
At the railway station a robot whirred through crowds to spray their feet with a disinfectant.
Passengers also had to pass temperatures checks and show green “health codes” on their phone, which are calculated in part by whether their neighbourhoods have been declared virus-free.
“Wuhan has lost a lot in this epidemic, and Wuhan people have paid a big price,” a 21-year-old man surnamed Yao told AFP.
“Now that the lockdown has been lifted, I think we’re all pretty happy.”
Stages of grief
Medical staff around the world are bearing a heavy physical and emotional toll as they work in packed intensive care units and makeshift hospitals erected in sports stadiums, on ships and even in a New York cathedral.
In Spain, home to the world’s second deadliest outbreak, another 757 deaths were reported Wednesday, bringing the toll up for a second day after several days of decline.
Antonio Alvarez, a 33-year-old nurse at a Barcelona hospital, described his experience of the crisis as akin to bereavement.
“I’ve had my phases of anger, of denial, you go through all of them.”
“Now we are still a little overwhelmed but it is better. Fewer patients are dying,” he told AFP.
Hundreds are still passing away daily in worst-affected Italy although the peak of the crisis appears to have passed, with the rise of infections falling to a new low.
Britain, meanwhile, was tense after a record 786 deaths Tuesday, while the prime minister’s hospitalisation underscored the seriousness of the disease for many in a country that was slow to react.
The 55-year-old British leader was “clinically stable” and “responding to the treatment,” his spokesman said, adding he was in “good spirits.”
The US also faced a punishing 24 hours, with another 1,939 deaths recorded according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University, bringing the nation’s death toll to nearly 13,000.
President Donald Trump took aim at the WHO, accusing it of a pro-Beijing bias as he threatened to cut funding.
The US president has criticised China’s handling of the pandemic and questioned the accuracy of official statistics that show its deaths have slowed to a trickle.
Yet Trump himself has also come under fire for initially downplaying the virus by likening it to the flu and failing to adequately prepare the country – which now has the most infections on the planet.
A staggering 81% of the world’s 3.3 billion-strong workforce has been affected by “the worst global crisis since the Second World War,” according to the UN’s International Labour Organization.
Governments around the globe are rolling out unprecedented stimulus measures, including a $1-trillion package in Japan.
In Washington, Democrats demanded an additional $500 billion to battle the coronavirus crisis, a request that could complicate efforts to push through a new aid package for small businesses.
The eurozone is also mired in bickering over a bailout plan for its hard-hit members that would come on top of measures enacted by individual governments.
Finance ministers were unable to bridge divides after 16 hours of talks that will now resume Thursday.
The markets continued their volatile movement, with Wall Street stocks rising at the start of trade on Wednesday.
The economic disruption is biting hardest among the world’s poor.
“Since this crisis started we’ve been sitting at home and there’s no money coming in,” said Mohamed Said, a 36-year-old carpenter and father-of-three queueing for food packages in Cairo.
“We don’t know how to feed our kids… and if, God forbid, something happens to any of them, I won’t be able to foot a hospital bill.”