A new raft of bleak economic data laid bare the crippling worldwide impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Thursday, as hard-hit Europe moved to further ease lockdown measures in a bid to get people back to work.
The United States said another 3.2 million people filed unemployment claims last week, while Germany and France reported major slumps in industrial production and Britain said its economic output would plummet by 14% this year.
A top Brazilian minister warned that Latin America’s biggest economy – and the region’s virus epicenter – risked “collapse” if stay-at-home measures were not soon lifted.
Nations around the world are under huge pressure to ease the economic pain caused by measures to halt the spread of the virus, which has claimed more than 266,000 lives, infected 3.8 million and left half of humanity under some form of lockdown.
Across Europe, many countries are now easing restrictions, with some shops and schools re-opening across the region, Italy allowing Catholics to soon attend mass, and Norway to open up pubs on June 1.
US President Donald Trump is also pushing for lockdowns to be lifted, as he tries to steady the world’s largest economy before voters head to the polls in November.
“This country can’t stay closed and locked down for years,” he said Thursday at a meeting with Texas Governor Greg Abbott, whose state was one of the first to lift stay-at-home rules.
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.
Britain was on Thursday reviewing lockdown measures, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson expected to offer a roadmap on easing restrictions on Sunday.
Johnson – who himself was hospitalized for Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus – said: “We will proceed with maximum caution”.
Trouble for tourism
The easing has already started in Germany, Europe’s largest economy, while France is due on Monday to start emerging from a lockdown that began in mid-March.
But French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said four regions including the greater Paris area would see a more limited easing of restrictions as the number of cases “remains high – higher than we would have hoped.”
Economists have been warning for weeks that the pandemic will lead to the worst global economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and new data are revealing the extent of the damage.
Beyond the US jobless figures, Germany said its industrial production fell by 9.2% month-on-month in March, while in France it dropped 16.2%.
In Brazil, Economy Minister Paulo Guedes said the country could begin to face food shortages in a month’s time and “production may become disorganized, leading to a system of economic collapse, of social disorder.”
Brazil has been hit hard by the pandemic, with more than 135,000 cases and 9,146 deaths. That is more than half the 16,000 deaths in all of Latin America.
Globally, 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% in 2020 because of the pandemic.
Cruise lines, shut down because of the pandemic, are still struggling to repatriate tens of thousands of crew members stranded aboard ships at sea.
“We are desperate to get home,” says Jessica Furlan, who works on the Celebrity Infinity, which is in limbo somewhere between Florida and the Bahamas.
Moscow extends lockdown
Most of Europe has seen a significant drop in the number of new infections and deaths from the virus, but cases are on the rise in Russia.
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.
The United States remains the hardest-hit country, with more than 1.25 million cases and over 75,000 deaths. More than 2,400 deaths were reported in the past 24 hours, according to Johns Hopkins University.
But Trump has said it is crucial to re-open the shuttered economy.
The new jobless claims announced Thursday bring the total to a staggering 33.5 million newly unemployed since mid-March.
“We will vanquish the virus, we will defeat the enemy. We will not fail,” Trump said.
Also Thursday, the White House said a military aide – reportedly working as a valet for Trump – had tested positive for coronavirus, but the president has not been infected.
Minorities at higher risk
Scientists are not only working hard to produce a vaccine to combat the novel coronavirus, but also to determine all of the symptoms it provokes.
“At the outset, we were told to watch out for headaches, fever and a light cough,” recalls Sylvie Monnoye, a family doctor in central Paris for nearly three decades.
“Then they added a runny nose and a scratchy throat. After that, digestive problems, including stomach aches and severe diarrhea,” she added.
“We started to think that we should suspect everything,” said Monnoye, dressed from head-to-toe in protective wear.
In Britain, studies have shown that ethnic minorities are 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.
In Brazil, a similar pattern has emerged, with blacks dying at a higher rate, statistics show.