Economic pain from virus spreads as quickly as the pandemic

PARIS: Economic pain from the coronavirus pandemic deepened Thursday, as health authorities warned that returning to normal is a distant goal despite many leaders' hopes of reopening stores, factories, airplanes and schools quickly and safely.

Fallout from the virus spread in ways both predictable and devastating, from police torching an illicit food market in Zimbabwe, to emergency flights carrying foreign farm workers to Britain and Germany, to protests at U.S. state capitols against millions of job losses.

New U.S. unemployment figures loomed Thursday. With many factories shut down, American industrial output shriveled in March, registering its biggest decline since the nation demobilized in 1946 at the end of World War II. Retail sales fell by an unprecedented 8.7%, with April expected to be far worse.

In France, Amazon suspended operations after a court ruled it wasn’t doing enough to protect its workers in the country. The online retailer, which has six warehouses in France, said it would evaluate the court decision.

In Britain, a government survey found that a quarter of companies has suspended business. Cargo traffic at Europe's massive port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands sank 9.3% in the first quarter from the same period a year ago and its CEO warned of worse to come.

The World Health Organization's European chief said optimism that the spread of the virus was declining in Italy, Spain and France was tempered by the knowledge that it was rising or sustained at a high level in Britain, Russia and Turkey.

“The storm clouds of this pandemic still hang heavily over the European region,” Dr. Hans Kluge said.

The International Monetary Fund says fallout from what it calls the “Great Lockdown” will be the most devastating since the Great Depression in the 1930s.

That has made leaders all the more anxious to send people back to work and school and to rebuild economies devastated by the pandemic that has infected more than 2 million people and claimed more than 137,000 lives, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

Italy’s hardest-hit region of Lombardy is pushing to relaunch manufacturing on May 4, the day that the national lockdown is set to lift. Regional officials are considering ordering companies to stagger opening hours to avoid cramming public transport.

But Italy’s deputy economic development minister, Stefan Buffagni, called the plan premature.

‘’Going in a random order risks fueling confusion among citizens and businesses,’’ Buffagni said.

In China, where the virus first emerged in December, even people who still have jobs have been wary of spending much or going out. Some Chinese cities tried reassuring consumers by showing officials eating in restaurants. In Zhengzhou, salesman Zhang Hu in was back at work but his income plummeted because few are buying the 20-ton trucks he sells.

“I have no idea when the situation will turn better,” he said.

The U.S. began issuing one-time payments this week to tens of millions of people as part of its $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package. But another part of the relief package, a $350 billion paycheck protection program aimed at small businesses, is running dry after being open for only a matter of days. Negotiations were accelerating in Washington over a $250 billion emergency request to help.

The U.S. has seen nearly 640,000 infections — more than the next four countries put together — and leads the world with nearly 31,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. Experts say, however, the true toll of the pandemic is much higher due to limited testing, uneven counting of deaths and some governments' attempts to downplay their outbreaks.

Despite the relief checks, Americans have begun to protest the virus restrictions that have put at least 17 million out of work, closed factories and brought many small businesses to their knees.

In Michigan and Oklahoma, thousands came out to protest the virus lockdowns they say have destroyed livelihoods.

In Michigan, some were masked and armed with rifles, but many unmasked people defied stay-at-home orders and jammed nearly shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the Capitol building in Lansing. In Oklahoma, cars plastered with protest signs drove past the Statehouse in Oklahoma City: “All jobs are essential,” read one sign on the back of a pickup truck.

"This arbitrary blanket spread of shutting down businesses, about putting all of these workers out of business, is just a disaster. It’s an economic disaster for Michigan,” said protester Meshawn Maddock.

In Michigan's northern Leelanau County, Sheriff Mike Borkovich said enforcing the coronavirus restrictions was taking a toll.

“People are frantic to get back to work. They have been very edgy,” Borkovich told The Associated Press.

President Donald Trump said he’s prepared new guidelines for easing social distancing, even as business leaders told him more testing and personal protective equipment were essential first.

In Brussels, the pandemic was making the European Union redraw all of its budget plans to focus on tackling the coronavirus pandemic. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the 27-nation bloc's next trillion-euro budget will have to be re-imagined as “the mother-ship of our recovery.”

Troubling data indicate the worst may still be to come in many parts of the world.

Japan’s prime minister announced he would expand a state of emergency to the entire country, rather than just urban areas, as the virus continued to spread.

The British government was set Thursday to extend a nationwide lockdown for several more weeks, as health officials say the coronavirus outbreak in the country is peaking. Britain was still expected to see its first flight of Romanian farm workers, and more than 30,000 other workers registered for flights to Germany to help plant and harvest.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged stepped-up efforts to prepare Africa for the virus, warning that the continent “could end up suffering the greatest impacts.” In Zimbabwe, where food was scarce even before the pandemic, police raided a market, torching 3 tons of fresh fruit and vegetables and scattering farmers who had broken travel restrictions to try to sell their wares.

Singapore scrambled to react after seeing more than 1,100 cases since Monday. It had successfully contained a first wave of infections, but new cases are occurring among workers from poorer Asian countries who live in crowded dormitories in the tiny city-state.

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro's lackadaisical approach to the virus came under increased pressure for the dangers it placed Brazilians in.

“We’re fighting against the coronavirus and against the ‘Bolsonaro-virus,’” Sao Paulo state Gov. João Doria told the AP, adding that he believes the president has adopted “incorrect, irresponsible positions.”