Bleak economic data from across the globe showed the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Thursday as hard-hit Europe moved to further ease lockdown measures that ground its economies to a halt.
Governments around the world are under immense pressure to ease the economic pain caused by measures to stop the virus, which has claimed more than 263,000 lives and left half of humanity under some form of lockdown.
The United States said another 3.2 million workers filed jobless claims last week, while Germany and France reported major slumps in industrial production and Britain said its economic output would plummet by 14 percent this year.
Many European nations are now cautiously easing restrictions in the hopes of stabilising their reeling economies, with some shops and schools re-opening, Italy allowing Catholics to attend masses from mid-May and even Germany’s Bundesliga football league to resume on May 16, though without spectators.
US President Donald Trump is also pushing for lockdown measures to be lifted, while engaging in a war of words with China that saw him claim the pandemic was a worse “attack” on the United States than Pearl Harbor or 9/11.
But experts have warned that social distancing will remain necessary until a vaccine is developed — and governments are keen to avoid a devastating second wave of infections.
The British government was on Thursday reviewing lockdown measures, with a partial easing expected to be announced this weekend.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly said the government wants to avoid a resurgence of the virus and told senior ministers Thursday: “We will proceed with maximum caution”.
– Trouble for tourism –
The easing has already begun in Germany, Europe’s largest economy, while on Monday France is due to start emerging from a lockdown that began in mid-March.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said four regions of France including Paris would see a more limited easing of restrictions as authorities remain concerned.
In the Ile-de-France region that includes Paris, “the number of cases is falling but remains high. Higher than we would have hoped,” he said.
Many Europeans are anxious to get back to work, like Elena Isaac, a restaurant owner in Cyprus’s now-empty beach resort of Ayia Napa.
“You can’t survive with no tourists… It is impossible,” she told AFP, as nearby residents enjoyed the loosening of a six-week lockdown with swims in the Mediterranean.
Economists have been warning for weeks that the pandemic will lead to a global economic downturn not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s and new data is bringing the impact into sharper focus.
The Bank of England said the economic output of Britain — which has the second-highest number of deaths in the world — was set to crash 14 percent this year.
The forecast came a day after the European Union warned of a 7.7-percent eurozone contraction in 2020.
Germany said its industrial production fell by 9.2 percent month-on-month in March, while in France it dropped 16.2 percent.
Airlines and travel are among the sectors worst hit by the pandemic, with flights grounded worldwide and social distancing measures severely limiting leisure and business trips.
The World Tourism Organization said Thursday that the number of international tourist arrivals will plunge by 60 to 80 percent in 2020 because of the pandemic.
– Moscow extends lockdown –
Most of Europe has seen a significant drop in the number of new infections and deaths from the virus, though in Russia cases are on the rise and on Thursday it reported another record increase with more than 11,000 new infections.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin announced that lockdown measures would be extended in the capital until May 31, saying it was “still too early to open restaurants, theatres, and sport facilities”.
The United States remains the hardest-hit country — with more than 1.2 million cases and over 73,000 deaths — but Trump has said it is crucial to re-open the shuttered economy.
The new jobless claims announced on Thursday brings the total to a staggering 33.5 million newly unemployed since mid-March.
Heading into a re-election campaign later this year, Trump has ramped up his rhetoric against Beijing, telling reporters on Wednesday that the disease that emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan last year “should have never happened”.
“Could have been stopped at the source. Could have been stopped in China,” he said. “This is really the worst attack we’ve ever had… This is worse than Pearl Harbor. This is worse than the World Trade Center.”
China called the remarks “disharmonious, untruthful and insincere”.
“We urge the US side to stop shifting the blame to China and turn to facts,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing.
The White House said Thursday that a military aide — reportedly part of a unit working closely alongside Trump — had tested positive for coronavirus, but the president had not been infected.
The pandemic has hammered healthcare infrastructure in many parts of the United States, including New York City, and its impact has been particularly severe among the poorest Americans such as undocumented migrants.
– ‘He could no longer walk’ –
Many of them are afraid of deportation, as well as the risk of racking up unpayable medical bills and hurting their quest to obtain legal status. As a result, many have contracted and died of COVID-19.
“He was very ill but did not want to go to the hospital,” Victoria, a Mexican nanny in New York City, said of her 69-year-old husband who had kidney problems and diabetes.
“After two weeks, when he could no longer walk or breathe, my daughter took the risk, loaded him into the car and drove him there. He died three weeks later.”
Studies in Britain meanwhile showed ethnic minorities at much greater risk from the pandemic, with the Office for National Statistics saying black men and women were more than four times more likely to die with coronavirus than white people in England and Wales.