World leaders to meet virtually to coordinate virus response

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, and experts are saying it could cause more damage than the Great Depression.

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.Guterres urged G20 leaders to adopt a “wartime” plan including a stimulus package “in the trillions of dollars” for businesses, workers and households in developing countries trying to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

"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 global lockdown - which rolled through India's huge population this week -- tightened further Thursday as Russia announced it was grounding all international flights.

Economists say the restrictions imposed around the world to fight the virus could cause the most violent recession in recent history. Unemployment rates are expected to soar - as much as 30% in the US, according to James Bullard, president of the St Louis Federal Reserve.

Europe will also suffer.

"We think the unemployment rate in the Eurozone will surge to about 12% 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. The meeting will be chaired by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman. The kingdom, which is presiding over the G20 this year, said it organized the extraordinary meeting to advance global efforts to tackle the pandemic and its economic implications as people lose their incomes amid closures, curfews and lockdowns.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said richer nations needed to offer support to low and middle income countries, including those in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The devastating effect on poorer countries was laid bare Thursday, when the Philippines announced that nine frontline doctors had died after contracting COVID-19.

Three large Manila hospitals said this week they had reached capacity and would no longer accept new coronavirus cases. Hundreds of medical staff are undergoing 14-day self-quarantines after suspected exposure, the hospitals said.

The global death toll from the new coronavirus, which causes an illness called COVID-19, has climbed past 21,000 and the number of infections has surpassed 472,000, according to a count kept by Johns Hopkins University. The number of dead in the US rose to 1,041 as of late Wednesday, with nearly 70,000 infections. Spain’s death toll has risen past 3,400, eclipsing that of China, where the virus was first detected in December.

The International Labor Organization says nearly 40% of the world’s population has no health insurance or access to national health services and that 55% - or 4 billion people - do not benefit from any form of social protection whatsoever. It said the current health crisis makes clear that not nearly enough progress has been made by governments in the years since the 2008 financial crisis to expand access to health services, sickness benefits, and unemployment protection.

The International Monetary Fund and World Bank issued a call on G20 countries ahead of the Thursday’s meeting, warning of severe economic and social consequences for developing countries, home to a quarter of the world’s population and where most of the world’s poorest people reside.

The lenders called for a suspension of debt payments from these countries and asked G20 leaders to task the World Bank and IMF with making the needed assessments on which countries have unsustainable debt situations and immediate financing requirements.

“It is imperative at this moment to provide a global sense of relief for developing countries as well as a strong signal to financial markets,” the lenders said in a joint statement.

IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva has said the lender stands “ready to deploy all our $1 trillion lending capacity.” She said earlier this week the IMF expects a recession at least as bad as during the 2008 global financial crisis or worse. Nearly 80 countries are requesting IMF help.

Ethiopia’s government told G20 finance ministers and Central Bank chiefs in a call ahead of Thursday’s summit that Africa needs a $150 billion emergency financing package due to the impact of the virus.

More on this subject: Coronavirus

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