Pandemic fuels historic US job losses, EU wants borders kept shut

The United States shed 20.5 million jobs in April.
The United States shed 20.5 million jobs in April.
Image: 123RF/kritchanut

The United States on Friday recorded its steepest job losses in history over the coronavirus pandemic as Europe moved to keep its borders shut for another month.

Hopes have been rising that the worst of the global catastrophe, which has killed more than 270,000 people, has passed, and the United States on Friday approved a new at-home saliva test to speed up diagnosis for COVID-19.

But after weeks in which half of humanity was restricted from carrying on normal life, the effects have been painfully visible, with the global economy suffering its most acute downturn in nearly a century.

In the United States, 20.5 million jobs were wiped out in April -- the most ever reported -- with unemployment rising to 14.7 percent, the highest since the Great Depression.

The world's largest economy has suffered the deadliest coronavirus outbreak, with more than 77,000 fatalities and nearly 1.3 million cases.

Mindful of elections in November, President Donald Trump has nonetheless vowed to reopen the country, and a growing number of state governors have already let business resume with precautions.

Trump played down the unemployment numbers, as the White House pointed to substantial gains Friday on global stock markets as proof that better times were ahead.

"We're going to have a phenomenal year next year," Trump told reporters. "I think it's going to come back blazing."

His optimism came even as the virus spread within the White House, with the press secretary of Vice President Mike Pence testing positive.

Neighboring Canada also shed three million jobs, bringing its unemployment rate up to 13.1 percent, two days after the European Union forecast a massive recession in the bloc.

Still 'fragile'

A number of governments are moving to ease restrictions. Germany, Europe's biggest economy, took decisive early action that stemmed the virus and Chancellor Angela Merkel plans an almost complete return to normal within the month.

Italy, where deaths on Friday passed 30,000, plans to allow worshippers to return to church, while Denmark said cinemas, museums and zoos would reopen on June 8.

Pakistan was due to begin easing its nationwide lockdown on Saturday even as cases continued to rise, citing economic havoc that the measures have wreaked.

In Britain, which has suffered the world's highest death toll after the United States, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to offer a roadmap out of lockdown on Sunday.

The European Commission recommended that the 27-nation bloc keep banning non-essential entry of visitors until June 15, an extension of one month.

"The situation remains fragile both in Europe and in the world," it said in a statement.

The virus that has infected 3.9 million people worldwide overshadowed one of the most important dates on the European calendar -- the anniversary of the end of World War II on the continent.

Parades and commemorations to mark 75 years since Nazi Germany's surrender were canceled or scaled down, and the thoughts of many national leaders were on fighting the new global challenge.

"We want more, not less, cooperation in the world -- also in the fight against the pandemic," German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said.

Russia, which marks the occasion a day later than western Europe, was on Saturday preparing for muted celebrations after becoming Europe's hotspot in the coronavirus pandemic.

A Red Square parade has been postponed and President Vladimir Putin will instead give a 20-minute speech at a war memorial inside the Kremlin walls.

No unity at UN

Far from bringing the world together, the crisis has triggered a war of words between China, where the virus first appeared in the metropolis of Wuhan, and the United States, where Trump has battled criticism over his handling of an epidemic which he boasted of having under control in January.

The Trump administration has brought into the mainstream a theory that the virus came from a Wuhan laboratory, despite the World Health Organization and the top US epidemiologist saying there is no evidence.

China rejects the charge, and America's allies are not convinced.

The feud spread Friday to the UN Security Council, where the United States, stunning other members, prevented a vote on a resolution that called for a ceasefire in various conflicts around the world.

The resolution, led by France and Tunisia, called for a cessation of hostilities in conflict zones and a 90-day "humanitarian pause" to allow governments to better address the pandemic among those suffering most.

Diplomats said the United States was concerned about language in the resolution on the role of the World Health Organization, which has been at the forefront of confronting COVID-19.

Trump has vowed to freeze the more than $400 million in annual US funding for the UN body, saying it did not act quickly enough when the mysterious respiratory disease emerged in Wuhan and blindly took the word of China.

The US State Department on Friday also accused China and Russia of sharply escalating disinformation online about the virus, including promoting conspiracy theories that it was cooked up by US scientists.

Home tests

Researchers in Hong Kong have found that patients suffering milder illness caused by the new coronavirus recover more quickly if they are treated with a three-drug antiviral cocktail soon after symptoms appear.

Authors of the study, published in the Lancet on Friday, called for larger-scale research to ascertain if the drug combo could be a viable treatment for critically-ill patients.

With the US death toll and infections still climbing, regulators on Friday offered a way to ramp up testing -- a significantly simpler home diagnostic kit that uses saliva.

Public health workers warn that a complete return to normal is impossible until the development of a vaccine, which could take months if not more.

Trump, however, has suggested that a vaccine is not a prerequisite to ending the pandemic.

"At some point it will probably go away by itself," he told reporters, while adding: "If we had a vaccine, that would be very helpful."

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