Once-in-a-generation epidemic passes dubious milestone

Published March 19, 2020
Venice: Clear water is seen in Venice’s canals due to fewer than the normal number of tourists, motorboats and pollution as the coronavirus disease continues to spread.—Reuters
Venice: Clear water is seen in Venice’s canals due to fewer than the normal number of tourists, motorboats and pollution as the coronavirus disease continues to spread.—Reuters

MADRID: Hundreds of millions of people worldwide were adjusting on Wednesday to once-in-a-generation measures to battle the coronavirus crisis that is not only killing the old and vulnerable but also threatening prolonged economic misery.

The fast-spreading disease that jumped from animals to humans in China has now infected at least 200,000 people and caused nearly 8,500 deaths in 164 nations, triggering emergency lockdowns and injections of cash unseen since World War Two.

“We have never lived through anything like this,” Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez told a parliament chamber nearly empty with more than 90 per cent of lawmakers staying away and a masked and gloved cleaner wiping handrails between speeches.

“And our society, which had grown used to changes that expand our possibilities of knowledge, health and life, now finds itself at war to defend all we have taken for granted.”

There was particular alarm in Italy, which has experienced an unusually high death rate — 2,503 from 31,506 cases — and was calling on students and retired doctors to help an overwhelmed health service.

Coronavirus cases top 200,000

Around the world, the rich and poor alike saw lives turned upside down as events were cancelled, shops stripped, workplaces emptied, streets deserted, schools shut and travel minimised.

“Cleanliness is important — but here it’s not easy,” said Marcelle Diatta, a 41-year-old mother of four in Senegal where announcements rang from loudspeakers urging people to wash hands but water was often cut off in her suburb.

The crisis has created a wave of solidarity in some countries, with neighbours, families and colleagues coming together to look after the most needy, including dropping supplies at the doors of those forced to stay indoors.

Around Spain, applause and the banging of pots ring out in the evenings at 8pm as self-isolated neighbours express gratitude to health services. In several countries, stores began reserving special times for elderly shoppers.

Spooked by a seemingly inevitable global recession, rich nations are unleashing billions of dollars in stimulus to economies, aid to health services, loans to tottering businesses, and help for individuals fearful for mortgages and other routine payments.

“This is a once-in-a-hundred-year type event,” said Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, warning the crisis could last six months as his nation became the latest to restrict gatherings and overseas travel.

Extra cash from governments and central banks failed to calm markets: stocks and oil prices reeled again, with European shares down nearly 5pc to approach seven-year lows.

Taking their cue from the waning of the coronavirus in China, where it emerged at the end of last year, optimists predict a bounce back once the epidemic also passes its peak elsewhere — hoped to be within months.

Pessimists are factoring in the possibility of recurring outbreaks and years of pain, some even whispering comparisons with the Great Depression of the 1930s.

On the ground, millions of workers fear for their jobs. In the airline industry, tens of thousands have already been laid off or put on unpaid leave. The US state of Nevada, home of the casinos of Las Vegas, effectively shut its entire leisure industry overnight. The sector employs 355,000 people — a quarter of all jobs in the state.

In China, the world’s second-biggest economy after the United States, the jobless rate rose to 6.2pc in February, the highest since records began, and up from 5.2pc in December.

The majority of Chinese businesses and factories apart from the epicentre in Hubei province have reopened, but it is unclear how many workers and staff have actually returned.

The crisis exacerbated some long-running geopolitical frictions. A European Union document accused Russian media of stoking panic in the West via misinformation over the disease, while China withdrew credentials of American journalists at three US newspapers in a row in part over coverage of the coronavirus.

Published in Dawn, March 19th, 2020

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