A stunned world grapples with coronavirus

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Hundreds of millions of people worldwide are adjusting to once-in-a-generation measures to battle the coronavirus crisis that is killing the old and vulnerable and threatening prolonged economic misery.

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

“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.

“Life is changing in Australia, as it is changing all around the world,” he added, as government prepared for a potentially exponential rise after six deaths so far.

There is particular alarm in Italy, which experienced an unusually high death rate – 2 503 from 31 506 cases – and drafted thousands of student doctors into service before final exams to help an overwhelmed health service.

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

“Cleanliness is important – but 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 created a wave of solidarity in some countries, with neighbours, families and colleagues coming together to care for the most needy, including dropping supplies at for those forced to stay indoors.

In the hills of southern Spain, applause rings out every evening as self-isolated neighbours thank health services for their work and greet each other.

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 of mortgages and other routine payments.

BOUNCE BACK OR LONG RECESSION?

“We never lived through anything like this. Our society, which grew used to changes that expand our possibilities of knowledge, health and life, now finds itself in a war to defend all we have taken for granted,” Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez Sanchez told parliament.

The chamber was nearly empty with most lawmakers kept away.

Extra cash from governments and central banks failed to calm markets: stocks and oil prices reeled.

Taking their cue from the waning of the coronavirus in China, where it first emerged, optimists predict a bounce back once the epidemic passes its peak elsewhere – hopefully within months.

Pessimists factor in the possibility of recurring outbreaks and years of pain, some whisper comparisons with the Great Depression of the 1930s.

On the ground, millions of workers fear for their jobs.

Restaurants, bars and hotels are shuttered and in the airline industry, facing the worst crisis in living memory, tens of thousands have been laid off or put on unpaid leave.

In China, the jobless rate rose to 6.2% in February, the highest since records began, up from 5.2% in December.

The majority of businesses and factories – apart from the epicentre in Hubei province – reopened, but it is unclear how many workers and staff  returned. Some sectors fare better than others, such as pharmaceuticals, supermarkets, food suppliers, and utilities.

GEOPOLITICS FLARE

Some geopolitical frictions continued as normal – or even exacerbated by the crisis. A European Union document accused Russian media of stoking panic in the West via misinformation over the disease.

Moscow denies such accusations in the past.

In other long-rumbling frictions, China withdrew the press credentials of three American journalists in a dispute over media freedom and coverage of the coronavirus.

The US election race carries on, with Joe Biden coasting to victory in three Democratic presidential primaries. A hiatus in campaigning is expected due to the epidemic.

The coronavirus dampened passions in some hotspots, such as Hong Kong where anti-Beijing protests raged. In others, anti-establishment demonstrators were adamant they would not be side-tracked.

“The system is trying to use coronavirus as an argument to end our revolution,” teacher Mohamed Hachimi said of a ban on protests in Algeria. “Marches will continue!”

China’s outbreak appeared over the worst, while the West’s was spiralling, overseas Chinese students began flying home after campuses closed.

“There’s uncertainty and I think having more support – family and friends in China – would make this period easier,” said 20-year-old Harvard University undergraduate Roger Zhang, returning home to Shenzhen.

With most major sports events cancelled, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is under increasing pressure to reconsider the summer Games in Japan.

Athletes, including reigning Olympic pole vault champion Katerina Stefanidi, said athletes’ health was at risk as they juggled training with coronavirus shutdowns.

“We all want Tokyo to happen but what is the Plan B if it does not happen?” Stefanidi told Reuters.