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World leaders to hold crisis talks as virus toll tops 21,000

AFP logoAFP 6 days ago AFP

World leaders are to hold online crisis talks Thursday 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.

a boat sitting on top of Harmandir Sahib: India has imposed a 21-day lockdown © NARINDER NANU India has imposed a 21-day lockdown

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.

Mike Pence, Donald Trump, Steven Mnuchin are posing for a picture: US President Donald Trump said he would have a recommendation 'before Easter' on whether parts of the US can reopen © MANDEL NGAN US President Donald Trump said he would have a recommendation 'before Easter' on whether parts of the US can reopen

"COVID-19 is threatening the whole of humanity -- and the whole of humanity must fight back," Guterres said, launching an appeal for $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."

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.

a man standing in a room: A worker sprays disinfectant in a cinema in the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang © STR A worker sprays disinfectant in a cinema in the northeastern Chinese city of Shenyang

- 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.

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. 

- '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.

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 rates of 30 percent, while Europe can also expect to suffer. 

"We think the unemployment rate in the eurozone will surge to about 12 percent by the end of June, giving up seven years' worth of gains in a matter of months," said David Oxley of London-based Capital Economics.

Leaders of the G20 major economies will hold a virtual huddle later Thursday in the shadow of such dire predictions.

"As the world confronts the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges to healthcare systems and the global economy, we convene this extraordinary G20 summit to unite efforts towards a global response," tweeted the king of Saudi Arabia. Saudi currently holds the rotating G20 presidency.

While wealthy nations including the US have unveiled mammoth stimulus packages, there has so far been no collective action plan from the G20, and concerns are mounting for poorer countries without access to capital markets and adequate health facilities.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged G20 nations to offer support to "low and middle income countries", including from Sub-Saharan Africa.

Individual stories of hardship continued to emerge.

At La Paz University Hospital in Madrid, nurse Guillen del Barrio sounded bereft as he related what happened overnight.

"It is really hard, we had feverish people for many hours in the waiting room," the 30-year-old told AFP.

"Many of my colleagues were crying because there were people who are dying alone, without seeing their family for the last time."

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