World leaders to hold crisis talks as COVID-19 toll tops 21,000

MADRID: World leaders are to hold online crisis talks Thursday (Mar 26) on the coronavirus pandemic that has forced three billion people into lockdown and claimed more than 21,000 lives.

With the disease tearing around the globe at a terrifying pace, warnings are multiplying over its economic consequences, with experts saying it could cause more damage than the Great Depression.

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And amid squabbling between the leaders of China and the US over who is to blame, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for the world to act together to halt the menace.

"COVID-19 is threatening the whole of humanity – and the whole of humanity must fight back," Guterres said, launching an appeal for US$2 billion to help the world's poor.

"Global action and solidarity are crucial," he said. "Individual country responses are not going to be enough."

US President Donald Trump said he would have a recommendation 'before Easter' on whether parts of the US can reopen AFP/MANDEL NGAN

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The death toll from the virus, which emerged in China late last year, continued to grow, with the US becoming the sixth country to hit four figures.

At least 1,041 people are now known to have died in the United States, with almost 70,000 confirmed infections, a tally by Johns Hopkins University showed, while globally the number of infections is closing in on half a million.

READ: Massive risks to world economy as COVID-19 battle rages

GUN RUSH

The rocketing infection rate in the US has sparked a rush to buy weapons, gun store owners told AFP, with customers panicking about social breakdown.

"A lot of people are buying shotguns, handguns, AR-15 (semi-automatic rifles), everything," said Tiffany Teasdale, who sells guns in Washington state.

"A lot of people are scared that someone is going to break into their home … to steal cash, their toilet paper, their bottled water, their food."

Around half of the US population is under lockdown, but President Donald Trump said he would decide soon whether unaffected parts of the country can get back to work.

"We want to get our country going again," Trump said. "I'm not going to do anything rash or hastily.

"By Easter we'll have a recommendation and maybe before Easter," said Trump, who had been touting a strong US economy as he faces an election in November.

The White House, which has been criticised for its lacklustre response to the mushrooming crisis, has repeatedly lashed out at Beijing over the disease.

India has imposed a 21-day lockdown AFP/NARINDER NANU

On Wednesday Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Group of Seven powers were united against China's "disinformation" campaign.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman infuriated Washington by suggesting on Twitter that US troops brought the virus to Wuhan, the metropolis where it was first detected late last year.

READ: Commentary: The great coronavirus pandemic will lead to another – of unemployment

"CRAZY TALK"

Scientists believe the new coronavirus came from a market that butchered exotic animals.

"Every one of the nations that were at that meeting this morning was deeply aware of the disinformation campaign that the Chinese Communist Party is engaged in to try and deflect from what has really taken place," Pompeo told reporters.

China "has been and continues to be engaged in" a campaign through social media that has included conspiracy theories of US involvement.

"This is crazy talk," he said.

But any notion of unity after the videoconference among the G7, which also includes Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan, was dashed by the lack of a joint statement – often a formality at such gatherings.

Reports suggested the statement was scuttled by Pompeo's insistence that it use the term "Wuhan virus" – a formulation frowned upon by medical professionals who say it is stigmatising.

Economists say the coronavirus, and the lockdown that has seen three billion people told to stay indoors, could cause the most violent recession in recent history.

"The G20 economies will experience an unprecedented shock in the first half of this year and will contract in 2020 as a whole," rating agency Moody's said.

A worker sprays disinfectant in a cinema in the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang AFP/STR

Unemployment rates are expected to soar, particularly in countries where levels have recently been at historic lows, such as Britain and the US.

James Bullard, president of the St Louis Federal Reserve, has predicted unprecedented unemployment ratRead More – Source