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Trump freezes WHO funds as world weighs lockdown lift

Donald Trump ordered a freeze on funding for the World Health Organization for “mismanaging” the coronavirus crisis, as world leaders weighed easing lockdowns that threaten to tip the global economy into a second Great Depression.

The death toll from the pandemic has topped 125,000, with nearly two million people infected by the disease that has upended society and changed lives for billions around the globe confined to their homes.

 

AFP / Oli SCARFFA man looks at graffiti depicting the badge of a superhero under a nurse and doctor’s uniform in homage to the efforts of NHS staff in Pontefract, northern England

Across the planet, leaders are agonising over when to lift lockdown measures to jump-start devastated economies but still avoid a second wave of infections.

And with the world battling to get on top of the pandemic, Trump fired his broadside at the WHO and halted payments that amounted to $400 million last year.

 

AFP / OSCAR DEL POZOHealthcare workers attend to a COVID-19 patient at the Intensive Unit Care (ICU) of the Ramon y Cajal Hospital in Madrid

Funding would be frozen pending a review into the WHO’s role in “severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus,” said Trump, who accused the Geneva-based body of putting “political correctness above life-saving measures”.

The outbreak could have been contained “with very little death” if the WHO had accurately assessed the situation in China, where the disease broke out late last year, charged the US president.

 

AFP / Joseph PreziosoLong lines for food donations form in Chelsea, Massachusetts

Trump’s attack came as the US counted a fresh record of 2,228 victims over the past 24 hours, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Nevertheless, Trump vowed to reboot large sections of the world’s top economy “very soon,” saying the US would reopen “in beautiful little pieces”, with the hardest-hit areas like New York taking slightly longer.

 

AFP / RODGER BOSCHSouth African police clash with residents of Tafelsig, an impoverished suburb near Cape Town, after some people did not receive food handouts

The International Monetary Fund laid bare the scale of the economic catastrophe, saying the “Great Lockdown” could wipe $9 trillion from the global economy in its worst downturn since the 1930s Great Depression.

The virus-hit Chinese economy, second only to the US in size, likely contracted for the first time in around three decades in the first quarter, according to an AFP poll of economists on Wednesday.

– ‘Open in a desert?’ –

With tentative hope the pandemic could be past its peak in some European hotspots, many countries are gradually lifting restrictions — to mixed reception.

AFP / KARIM SAHIBAn employee at the Emirati ministry of health sets up to receive patients at a huge field hospital in Dubai

Italy, one of the world’s hardest-hit nations, allowed bookshops, launderettes, stationery shops and children’s clothing retailers to re-open but many business owners chose to stay shut.

“Open in a desert? Why? A bookstore is a place where people interact — opening a business where no one walks by is dangerous from every point of view,” said Cristina Di Caio, a bookshop owner in Milan.

 

AFP / MANDEL NGANUS President Donald Trump announced a halt to funding for the World Health Organization during a briefing at the White House

Spain has allowed work to restart in some factories and construction sites while Europe’s top economy Germany is expected to ease some lockdown measures later Wednesday.

Also Wednesday, the European Union is poised to suggest a coordinated “road map” for member states to exit the lockdown measures.

 

AFP / Gal ROMAIMF growth forecasts by region and for selected countries in 2020

Vienna’s popular Favoriten shopping district drew mask-clad shoppers after the government allowed some small stores to reopen across Austria, which has been spared the worst of the virus.

“I just hope to God that it’s not too early” to ease the lockdown, 75-year-old pensioner Anita Kakac told AFP.

– ‘Unenforceable and unsustainable’ –

But citizens elsewhere braced for several more weeks of restrictions, including in India, whose 1.3 billion people will remain in lockdown until May 3 despite uproar from millions of unsupported poor people.

AFP / YAMIL LAGEA man wears a face mask stands on his balcony in Havana

As the virus appeared to be on the retreat in some parts of richer Europe, it is slowly taking hold in Africa, which has seen 15,000 cases and 800 deaths continent-wide, with fears over growing hunger and possible social unrest.

“A lockdown is unenforceable and unsustainable across much of Africa,” said Jakkie Cilliers at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS).

 

AFP / Tiziana FABISome shops reopened in Italy like this one in Rome, but not all business owners were on board, worrying about the health consequences

“You are trying to do something that is not possible and you are condemning people to a choice between starving and getting sick… It’s not possible for 10 people living in a tin shack… to not go outside for three weeks.”

A similar crisis is emerging in Ecuador where hunger trumps fear of the virus for residents in rundown areas of the badly affected city of Guayaquil.

“The police come with a whip to send people running, but how do you say to a poor person: ‘Stay home’ if you don’t have enough to eat?” said Carlos Valencia, a 35-year-old teacher.

AFP / FRANCK FIFEA poster in Paris thanks healthcare workers, shopkeepers, police, the post office staff and farmers

However, in parts of the world that saw early outbreaks, things were gradually returning to some semblance of normal — South Korea headed to the polls Wednesday with a big turnout expected despite the disease.

And examples of human resilience and generosity continued to lift the spirits.

While a 99-year-old British World War II veteran has raised millions for health workers by walking lengths of his 25-metre garden using a walking frame, a man of the same age beat the virus in Brazil.

“It was a tremendous fight for me, greater than in the war. In war, you kill or live. Here, you have to fight in order to live, and you leave this fight a winner,” said Ermando Piveta.

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