BRUSSELS: European leaders on Tuesday agreed a massive aid package for their pandemic-ravaged economies, as US President Donald Trump finally came out in favour of face masks as a tool against the coronavirus.
The virus has infected more than 14.7 million people and killed over 610,000 of them since emerging in China late last year, with fresh alarm being sounded over its accelerating spread in Africa.
After a fractious, 90-hour summit, European leaders finally agreed on a rescue package of 750 billion euros ($858 billion) to try and pull their bloc out of a deep recession. The pandemic has devastated the global economy.
“This is a historic change for Europe,” said French President Emmanuel Macron, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed relief that the EU had, in her eyes, shown itself equal to “the greatest crisis” in its history.
The package will send tens of billions of euros to countries hit hardest by the virus, most notably heavily indebted Spain and Italy who had lobbied hard for a major gesture from their EU partners.
The talks saw strong resistance from some nations against sending money to countries they considered too lax with public spending.
There was criticism from others that the compromises made were too great.
Teenage climate campaigner Greta Thunberg tweeted her disappointment.
“As expected the #EUCO resulted in some nice words, some vague distant incomplete climate targets nearly impossible to track and a complete denial of the climate emergency,” she wrote.
Britain, who left the EU in January and will not benefit from the aid plan, revealed on Tuesday that state borrowing had rocketed to a record 127.9 billion ($162.5 billion, 142 billion euros) in the three months to June.
Britain has suffered Europe’s deadliest coronavirus outbreak, with more than 45,000 deaths recorded to date.
And with even richer nations struggling, experts have warned that the impact would be harshest in poorer regions of the world like Africa.
The World Health Organisation sounded the alarm about the situation there, particularly in South Africa, where the death toll crossed 5,000 over the weekend.
“I am very concerned right now that we are beginning to see an acceleration of disease in Africa,” warned the WHO’s emergencies chief Michael Ryan on Monday.
Brazil’s death toll meanwhile passed 80,000 late on Monday, according to health ministry figures.
And the Middle East’s worst-hit country Iran on Tuesday recorded a new single-day record death toll of 229.
“This raises the overall toll to 14,634,” said a health ministry spokeswoman.
With no effective treatment yet, there are few options available to combat the spread of the virus, though they do include face masks — which Trump and his political allies refused to encourage for months.
But he changed direction on Monday, tweeting a photo of himself wearing a mask with the message: “We are United in our effort to defeat the Invisible China Virus, and many people say that it is Patriotic to wear a face mask when you can’t socially distance.” “There is nobody more Patriotic than me, your favorite President!” US authorities are struggling to handle the crisis as infections surge towards four million, with more than 140,000 deaths.
Published in Dawn, July 22nd, 2020