World leaders held emergency online talks Thursday to build a united front against the coronavirus pandemic that has claimed more than 21,000 lives and triggered fears of an economic collapse with record US unemployment figures.
With the disease tearing around the globe and three billion people locked down, countries are desperate to find ways to stop its terrifying spread and deal with a shock that could surpass the Great Depression.
Cases continued their upward spiral Thursday, with Europe, now the hardest hit continent, clocking over 250,000 infections and nearly 15,000 deaths while fatalities in the US hit the four-figure mark.
Leaders of the G20 most industrialised nations met by videophone Thursday as calls mounted for an action plan to tackle a crisis that UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres described as ‘threatening the whole of humanity.’
Saudi Arabia's King -- whose country holds the rotating presidency of the G20 -- urged fellow leaders to take action together and give a ‘helping hand’ to developing nations.
‘We must have an effective and coordinated response to this pandemic and restore confidence in the global economy,’ the king said in his opening remarks.
With a third of the world's population under lockdown, air travel practically halted and borders shut, economists say the restrictions could cause the most devastating recession in recent history.
- US jobless record -
In a sign of the economic impact, some 3.3 million people in the US filed unemployment claims last week -- the highest number ever recorded -- the labour Department reported Thursday.
Around half of the US population is now under lockdown, but President Donald Trump, who seeking reelection in November, said he would decide soon whether unaffected parts of the country can get back to work.
‘I'm not going to do anything rash or hastily,’ he said, adding that he hoped for a recommendation by Easter.
The US has close to 70,000 cases and 1,050 deaths, and numbers are rising daily.
The global lockdown -- which also hemmed in India's huge population this week -- tightened further Thursday as Russia announced it was grounding all international flights, while Moscow's mayor ordered the closure of cafes, shops and parks.
Tokyo's millions of citizens have been told to stay home too, just days after the city was forced to postpone the 2020 Olympic Games for a year.
Tourism-dependent Thailand has shuttered its borders while China, where the disease was first detected in December, said it was drastically cutting international flights as imported cases threatened to cause a resurgence.
- 'Encouraging signs' -
European and leading Asian stock markets were back in the red amid fears of the economic impact Thursday despite US senators finally passing a gargantuan $2 trillion stimulus package.
‘The G20 economies will experience an unprecedented shock in the first half of this year and will contract in 2020 as a whole,’ ratings agency Moody's said.
Singapore offered a major warning for the world, suffering its biggest contraction since the financial crisis during the first quarter, while France's lockdown has slashed economic activity by a huge 35 percent, its statistics office said.
But in Europe, the World Health Organization offered a glimmer of hope, saying there were ‘encouraging signs’ after Italy reported a lower rate of new infections.
Italy now has the highest death toll in the world with 7,503 fatalities and nearly 75,000 infections.
Though it has seen a slight drop in new cases in recent days, it is ‘still too early to say whether the pandemic is peaking’ there, WHO Europe director Hans Kluge cautioned Thursday.
In Britain, the National Health Service said London's hospitals are facing a ‘continuous tsunami’ of seriously ill COVID-19 patients, despite a lockdown imposed this week.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the country could be just a few weeks behind Italy's curve.
And Spain, with the world's second highest death toll after Italy, continued to suffer with the number surging to 4,089 after 655 people died within 24 hours.
- Blame game -
Globally the number of infections is closing in on half a million.
The disease has reach high profile figures, including Britain's heir to the throne Prince Charles, although Pope Francis reportedly tested negative for coronavirus after a person in his residence was said to have contracted it.
Fears are now growing of a devastating wave of infections hitting developing nations, with WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus saying as the G20 met that richer countries had to step up.
South Africa, the hardest hit country in Africa so far, was due to start a 21-day lockdown later. The Philippines announced that nine frontline doctors had died after contracting COVID-19.
Despite the calls for unity, the blame game grew between a Beijing eager to show it has curbed the crisis, and a White House criticised for its lacklustre response to the disease.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday said the G7 powers -- which also includes Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan -- were united against China's ‘disinformation’ campaign.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman infuriated Washington by suggesting that US troops brought the virus to Wuhan, the metropolis where it first emerged late last year. Scientists say the new coronavirus was first detected at a market that sold wild animals.
But even the G7 appeared divided after it failed to issue a joint statement, reportedly because of Pompeo's insistence that it use the term ‘Wuhan virus’ -- a phrase frowned upon by medical professionals who say it is stigmatising.
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