Global powers scramble as WTO braces for 'worst recession of our lifetimes'

(iStock)
(iStock)

World powers scrambled on Thursday to build a global response to the human and economic catastrophe caused by the coronavirus epidemic, as death tolls in the US and Europe soared higher.

In a locked-down New York, the UN Security Council was to meet on the pandemic for the first time, and in Brussels, EU finance ministers were wrangling over how to bail out hard-hit Italy and Spain.

On the spiritual front, Pope Francis was preparing to celebrate Maundy Thursday with The Mass of the Lord's Supper, but he was to be unable to perform the tradition of washing the feet of the faithful in case of infection.

And Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned Muslim worshippers to pray at home rather than in crowded mosques, even when the holy month of Ramadan begins later this month.

Yemen was already in the grip of a humanitarian tragedy caused by its civil war before the virus erupted, but on Thursday the Saudi-led coalition backing the government side began a unilateral "coronavirus ceasefire".

Meanwhile, the number of worldwide cases of the novel coronavirus since it spread from China earlier this year topped 1.5 million, according to an AFP tally. More than 88,981 people have died.

Alongside the personal tragedies and the pressure on overburdened hospitals, there has been a stark economic toll, with the WTO warning of the "worst recession of our lifetimes."

The worst-hit countries in Europe - the worst hit continent - are Italy and Spain, where daily death tolls are now down from their peaks but still running high, despite strict lockdowns.

Spain's daily fatalities fell to 683 on Thursday, down from 757 the day before, while its total passed 15,000.

In Italy, the country's youngest COVID-19 patient, a two-month-old baby girl, was reportedly released from hospital, a bright moment of hope in a country with 17,669 dead.

'Vital' that EU rise to occasion

Madrid and Rome are seeking assistance from EU partners to rebuild their economies in the wake of the disaster, but Germany has rejected the idea of joint borrowing and the Netherlands is blocking a compromise solution.

EU finance ministers were to meet later Thursday by videoconference for the second late-night crisis talks of the week to try to agree terms to allow hard-hit members to access funds.

Christine Lagarde, the head of the European Central Bank, said it was "vital" that ministers hatch a plan big enough to meet the challenge, warning: "If not all countries are cured, the others will suffer."

European companies are also suffering under a public lockdown, which health experts say is vital to slow the virus' spread but has effectively frozen economic life.

In one example, German airline Lufthansa warned it was losing one million euros ($1.08 million) an hour and would need state aid.

The virus has travelled around the whole world, and confined more than a third of humanity to their homes, but there has been a marked lack of international solidarity.

Thursday's videoconference meeting of the UN Security Council will be the first on the crisis since it began.

Led by Germany, nine of the council's 10 non-permanent members requested the closed-door meeting last week, fed up with the body's inaction over the unprecedented global crisis.

Talks are moving in the right direction, diplomats said, and Washington is no longer insisting UN language refer to the virus as coming from China, which had infuriated Beijing.

Despite the pandemic's origins, the United States is now the country hardest hit and UN host city New York is now America's most infected. On Wednesday, for the second straight day, the US recorded nearly 2,000 deaths.

There has also been a week of record tolls in Britain, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson spent a fourth night in intensive care, his condition said to be "improving."

And the pandemic is marching into areas previously only lightly affected: in Africa, Ethiopia declared a state of emergency and Liberia said it was locking down its capital Monrovia.

The continent also faces vast economic damage, with the World Bank warning that sub-Saharan Africa could slip into its first recession in a quarter of a century.

The pandemic's deadly tentacles also crept deep into the Amazon rainforest, with the first case detected among the Yanomami, an indigenous people isolated from the world until the mid-20th century and vulnerable to disease.

'Playing with fire'

All around the world, medical facilities are at bursting point as they struggle with a relentless procession of critically-ill patients.

In the badly affected city of Guayaquil in Ecuador, sick patients are passing out before arriving at emergency care and the elderly are slumped outside in wheelchairs.

"My grandmother died, my mother has all the symptoms, my 15-year-old sister too and the government is doing nothing, nothing! We need to be almost dying in order to receive assistance," said Xiomara Franco, a relative of a sick patient.

"There is a lack of oxygen, a lack of medicine, a lack of nurses and doctors, a lack of stretchers," complained Henry Figueroa, another angry relative.

At the global level, the World Health Organization and US President Donald Trump are embroiled in an ugly war of words, with Trump accusing the UN body of "blowing it" and of being too close to China.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged unity at a time of global crisis, saying: "If you don't want many more body bags, then you refrain from politicising it."

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