ISLAMABAD: The coronavirus may never go away and populations will have to learn to live with it just as they have HIV, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned, as the global death toll from the disease crosses 300,000.
There were also gloomy forecasts from the US Federal Reserve, which said prolonged shutdowns to stem the spread of the virus could cause lasting economic damage in America.
Washington ratcheted up tensions over the pandemic by accusing China of trying to steal research into a vaccine, while US President Donald Trump upped the rhetoric with a colourful phrase that could anger Beijing.
"We just made a great Trade Deal, the ink was barely dry, and the world was hit by the plague from China. 100 trade deals wouldn´t make up the difference -- and all those innocent lives lost!" Trump tweeted.
The United States total death toll stands at 85,768, according to international media reports. The president has increasingly looked to pin the blame on China, where the virus first emerged late last year.
Two US security agencies piled further pressure on Beijing Wednesday by saying Chinese hackers were attempting to steal intellectual property related to treatments.
"China´s efforts to target these sectors pose a significant threat to our nation´s response to COVID-19," the FBI and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) said.
Neither agency offered evidence to support the allegation. A vaccine could allow countries and economies to fully re-open from lockdowns and potentially earn millions of dollars for its creators. But the WHO said the virus may never be wiped out entirely.
"This virus may become just another endemic virus in our communities and this virus may never go away," said Michael Ryan, the global health body´s emergencies director in Geneva.
"HIV has not gone away -- but we have come to terms with the virus." The prospect of the disease hanging around leaves governments across the world facing a delicate balancing act between suppressing the pathogen and getting economies up and running.
Trump has been pushing for a swift resumption of economic activity in the US, often against the advice of health officials, as he tries to jumpstart the world´s largest economy before a November election.
Top infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci has said re-opening too soon risks triggering uncontrollable outbreaks, but the president Wednesday dismissed that call for caution as "not acceptable".
In an excerpt of an interview with Fox Business to air in full on Thursday, Trump said: "I totally disagree with him on schools." The tensions between health and the economy were thrown into sharp relief Wednesday when Federal Reserve chief Jay Powell warned of a potential "wave of bankruptcies" that could cause lasting harm.
Further signs of the damage to businesses emerged Thursday when Lloyd´s of London forecast the pandemic will cost the global insurance industry about $203 billion. In US, 1.4 million healthcare personnel have lost their jobs since March -- including 135,000 hospital workers.
And Australia released figures showing almost 600,000 people lost their jobs as the country´s virus shutdown took hold in April, the steepest monthly drop in employment since records began more than 40 years ago.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the number "terribly shocking". Re-opening of economies continued in earnest across Europe, with officials pushing ahead with plans to restore summer tourism even as fears persist of a second wave of infections.
Desperate to save millions of jobs, the European Union set out proposals for a phased restart of travel, with border controls to be eventually lifted, along with measures to minimise transmission.
Some beaches re-opened in France on Wednesday -- but only for swimming and fishing -- and people in England were allowed to leave their homes more freely. The return to normality also gathered pace in Asia with Japan lifting the emergency.
However, in Latin America the virus continued to surge, with a 60 percent leap in cases in the Chilean capital of Santiago, prompting authorities to impose a total lockdown on the city. "It should have come a month before, about 20 days before, because there are many infected people," said Juana Vergara, a retiree.
In Argentina, officials were watching Buenos Aires warily after one of its poorest and most densely populated neighbourhoods showed a spike in infections. But there were also bright spots in the battle. Mauritius declared temporary victory against the virus, saying it had "zero" patients and had not documented a single new case in 17 days.
The United Nations has projected that the coronavirus pandemic will dwindle the global economy by 3.2 percent in 2020, wiping out all gains of the last four years. The UN World Economic Situation and Prospects (WESP) report predicted the sharpest downturn for the global economy since the Great Depression in the 1930s, suggesting that $8.5 trillion will be lost over the next two years.
In January, the UN had estimated the global economy would experience 2.5 percent growth in 2020. However, now, the UN predicts a modest rebound next year, mostly making up for lost output. "Developing countries are also likely to experience large fiscal deficits and high public debt," the report highlighted.
The report also suggested the pandemic is causing an increase in poverty and inequality as 34.3 million people are expected to fall below the extreme poverty line this year, with 56 percent of them in Africa. Another 130 million are expected to join the list by 2030.
The UN report stated that without “quick breakthroughs” in COVID-19 vaccine and treatment developments, “the post-COVID-19 world will likely be vastly different.”
“The possibility of a slow recovery and prolonged economic slump — with rising poverty and inequality — looms large,” the report underscored. “Stronger development cooperation—supporting efforts to contain the pandemic and extending economic and financial assistance to countries hardest hit by the crisis—will remain critical for accelerating recovery and putting the world back on the trajectory of sustainable development,” it added.
According to data from Johns Hopkins University, an American research institution, the pandemic has thrown a wrench in economies around the world, as several countries had to shut down businesses to prevent further community spread.
“The global economic outlook has changed drastically since the launch of WESP 2020 in January”, Elliott Harris, UN Chief Economist and Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, told reporters at the launch of the report.
“With the large-scale restrictions of economic activities and heightened uncertainties, the global economy has come to a virtual standstill in the second quarter of 2020,” he added. “We are now facing the grim reality of a severe recession of a magnitude not seen since the Great Depression.”
Meanwhile, to fight the pandemic and minimise the impact of a catastrophic economic downturn, governments globally are rolling out fiscal stimulus measures that equal roughly 10 percent of the world’s GDP.
Although new infections and COVID-19-related death rates have recently slowed, the pandemic’s future course remains uncertain, as does the economic and social consequences that will follow.
Torn between saving lives and reviving the economy, some governments are already beginning to cautiously lift restrictions to jump-start their economies. But recovery will largely depend on how well public health and fiscal measures work together to stem the spread of the virus, minimising reinfection risks, safeguarding employment and restoring consumer confidence, so that people start spending again.
“The pace and strength of the recovery from the crisis”, explained Harris, will also rest on “the ability of countries to protect jobs and incomes, particularly of the most vulnerable members of our societies”.
Without a quick breakthrough in vaccine development and treatment, he said that “the post-COVID-19 world will likely be vastly different from the one we knew”.
Although a modest rebound of around 3.4 percent, mostly recovering lost output, is expected for 2021, the report spelt out that “the possibility of a slow recovery and prolonged economic slump, with rising poverty and inequality, looms large”.
Trade and tourism are paralysed, while large deficits and high levels of public debt will pose significant challenges for developing countries and small island states. The UN forecast makes clear that stronger multilateral support and solidarity to contain the pandemic, along with economic and financial assistance to countries hardest hit by the crisis, will remain “critical for accelerating recovery and putting the world back on the trajectory of sustainable development”
Meanwhile, the European Medicines Agency said Thursday a vaccine for the novel coronavirus could be ready in a year´s time under an "optimistic" scenario, based on trials that are underway.
The Amsterdam-based EU agency also played down fears expressed by the WHO that the virus might never go away, saying it would be "surprised" if a vaccine was not found eventually. "We can see the possibility if everything goes as planned that some of them (vaccines) could be ready for approval in a year from now," Marco Cavaleri, the EMA´s head of vaccines strategy, told a video news conference.
World leaders past and present insisted on Thursday that any eventual COVID-19 vaccines and treatments should be made available to everyone, free of charge. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan were among more than 140 signatories of a letter saying any vaccine should not be patented while the science should be shared between nations.
The World Health Assembly, the policy-setting body of the UN´s WHO, holds its annual general meeting next week. The signatories called on the WHA to rally behind the cause.
"Governments and international partners must unite around a global guarantee which ensures that, when a safe and effective vaccine is developed, it is produced rapidly at scale and made available for all people, in all countries, free of charge," the letter said.
"The same applies for all treatments, diagnostics, and other technologies for COVID-19." The letter was signed by Senegalese President Macky Sall and Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo.
Former presidents and prime ministers among the signatories included Shaukat Aziz, Jan Peter Balkenende, Jose Manuel Barroso, Gordon Brown, Helen Clark, Felipe Gonzalez, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Aleksander Kwasniewski, Mary McAleese, Olusegun Obasanjo and Juan Manuel Santos.
Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump further hardened his rhetoric towards China on Thursday, saying he no longer wishes to speak with Xi Jinping and warning darkly he might cut ties over the rival superpower´s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Tensions have ratcheted up between Washington and Beijing as they trade barbs over the origin of the pandemic -- which first appeared in late 2019 in the Chinese city of Wuhan, and which Trump has dubbed the "Plague from China."
"I have a very good relationship (with Xi), but I just -- right now I don´t want to speak to him," Trump told Fox Business. "I´m very disappointed in China. I will tell you that right now," he said.
Asked how the United States might choose to retaliate, Trump gave no specifics but struck a threatening tone, saying: "There are many things we could do. We could do things. We could cut off the whole relationship."
"If you did, what would happen?" Trump asked. "You´d save $500 billion if you cut off the whole relationship." Beijing accused the United States of smearing China after Washington alleged Chinese hackers were attempting to steal research on developing a vaccine against the coronavirus.
The claims have added fuel to tensions between the global superpowers, who have traded barbs over the origin of the pandemic. US authorities said Wednesday that Chinese hackers were trying to obtain coronavirus data on treatments and vaccines, warning the effort involved Chinese government-affiliated groups and others.
"China expresses strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition to such smearing," foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a regular press briefing. "Judging from past records, the US has carried out the largest cybertheft operations worldwide," Zhao said.
He stressed that Beijing has significant achievements of its own in the fight against the pandemic. Meanwhile, the UN investigators said they deeply regretted Burundi´s expulsion of WHO experts who were supporting the country´s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Burundi booted out the experts as the country prepares to go to the polls on Wednesday to choose a new president, parliamentarians and local officials. The UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi said in a statement that it "deeply regretted the recent decision by the government to declare persona non grata the country representative of WHO and three of its experts".
The investigators, tasked by the United Nations Human Rights Council with probing alleged violations and abuses in the country since 2015, also voiced their concerns about the authorities´ decision not to apply WHO recommendations on physical distancing "to prevent the spread of the coronavirus during the electoral campaign".
Muslim-majority Malaysia will ease a ban on mass prayers in mosques, starting from today (Friday) and ahead of this month’s Eid, the government said, as it gradually relaxes curbs that have helped rein in the coronavirus.
The news follows last week’s re-opening of many businesses in Malaysia, which has a tally of 6,819 infections and 112 deaths. It comes ahead of the Eid holiday that ends the fasting month of Ramazan, and likely falls on May 24 this year.
The capital, Kuala Lumpur, is among Malaysia’s federal territories which will allow prayers by congregations limited to 30 or fewer, said Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri, the religious affairs minister.
Iran warned of a possible coronavirus cluster hitting another province on Thursday as it announced 71 new deaths and more than 1,800 infections nationwide.
"We are in situation similar to previous days (in most provinces) save for Khuzestan, which is still in a critical condition, and it seems that North Khorasan may be critical as well," said health ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour. "If this trend continues, North Khorasan will require more serious measures, too," he added in televised remarks.
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