MADRID/BEIJING (Reuters) – Hundreds of millions of people worldwide were adjusting on Wednesday to once-in-a-generation measures to battle the coronavirus crisis that is not only killing the old and vulnerable but also threatening prolonged economic misery.
An empty shopping street is seen during the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Berlin, Germany, March 18, 2020. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
The fast-spreading disease that jumped from animals to humans in China has now infected about 200,000 people and caused nearly 8,500 deaths in 164 nations, triggering emergency lockdowns and injections of cash unseen since World War Two.
“We have never lived through anything like this,” Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez told a parliament chamber nearly empty with more than 90% of lawmakers staying away and a masked and gloved cleaner wiping handrails between speeches.
“And our society, which had grown used to changes that expand our possibilities of knowledge, health and life, now finds itself at war to defend all we have taken for granted.”
There was particular alarm in Italy, which has experienced an unusually high death rate – 2,503 from 31,506 cases – and was calling on student and retired doctors to help an overwhelmed health service.
Around the world, rich and poor alike saw lives turned upside-down as events were cancelled, shops stripped, workplaces emptied, streets deserted, schools shut and travel minimized.
“Cleanliness is important – but here it’s not easy,” said Marcelle Diatta, a 41-year-old mother of four in Senegal where announcements rang from loudspeakers urging people to wash hands but water was often cut off in her suburb.
The crisis has created a wave of solidarity in some countries, with neighbours, families and colleagues coming together to look after the most needy, including dropping supplies at the doors of those forced to stay indoors.
Around Spain, applause and the banging of pots ring out in evenings at 8 p.m. as self-isolated neighbours express gratitude to health services. In several countries, stores began reserving special times for elderly shoppers.
LONG RECESSION OR BOUNCE BACK?
Spooked by a seemingly inevitable global recession, rich nations are unleashing billions of dollars in stimulus to economies, aid to health services, loans to tottering businesses, and help for individuals fearful for mortgages and other routine payments.
“This is a once-in-a-hundred-year type event,” said Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, warning the crisis could last six months as his nation became the latest to restrict gatherings and overseas travel.
Extra cash from governments and central banks failed to calm markets: stocks and oil prices reeled again, with European shares down nearly 5% to approach seven-year lows.
Taking their cue from the waning of the coronavirus in China, where it emerged at the end of last year, optimists predict a bounce back once the epidemic also passes its peak elsewhere – hoped to be within months.
Pessimists are factoring in the possibility of recurring outbreaks and years of pain, some even whispering comparisons with the Great Depression of the 1930s.
On the ground, millions of workers fear for their jobs.
In the airline industry, tens of thousands have already been laid off or put on unpaid leave. The U.S. state of Nevada, home the casinos of Las Vegas, effectively shut its entire leisure industry overnight. The sector employs 355,000 people – a quarter of all jobs in the state.
In China, the world’s second biggest economy after the United States, the jobless rate rose to 6.2% in February, the highest since records began, and up from 5.2% in December.
The majority of Chinese businesses and factories – apart from the epicentre in Hubei province – have reopened, but it is unclear how many workers and staff have actually returned.
The crisis exacerbated some long-running geopolitical frictions. A European Union document accused Russian media of stoking panic in the West via misinformation over the disease, while China withdrew credentials of American journalists at three U.S. newspapers in a row in part over coverage of the coronavirus.
Among the latest cultural events to be cancelled was the 50th anniversary of Britain’s Glastonbury music festival.
With most major sports events now cancelled, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was under increasing pressure to reconsider the summer Games in Japan.
Several athletes, including reigning Olympic pole vault champion Katerina Stefanidi, said athletes’ health was at risk as they juggled training with coronavirus shutdowns.
“We all want Tokyo to happen but what is the Plan B if it does not happen?” Stefanidi told Reuters.
(Graphic: Interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus – here)
Reporting by Swati Pandey and Colin Packham in Sydney, Ryan Woo and Tony Munroe in Beijing, Robin Emmott in Brussels, Nathan Allen in Madrid, John Whitesides in Washington, Angelo Amante and Crispian Balmer in Rome, David Kirton in Shenzhen, Karolos Grohmann in Athens, Aaron Ross in Dakar, Paul Sandle in London; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Peter Graff