The EU on Wednesday forecast a historic recession on the continent battered by the deadly coronavirus pandemic, as the US and China escalated their war of words over the origins of the disease.
The grim prediction from Brussels came as Europe’s biggest economy Germany unveiled plans for a near-return to normality, even as fresh data from the powerhouse revealed manufacturing and car sales have been badly hammered.
Countries in Asia joined step in easing punishing lockdowns that have kept swathes of humanity indoors for weeks and pummelled economies, tipping the world toward a recession not seen in decades.
Students in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the outbreak emerged in December, were back in classrooms Wednesday, while South Korea lept back to life with offices and museums open once again.
The pandemic has now killed more than 257,000 people globally and officially infected nearly 3.7 million, although with only the most serious cases being tested the number is believed to be far higher.
Europe accounts for the lion’s share of deaths and infections, though hardest hit Britain, Italy, Spain and France have started to see new cases and fatalities level off in recent weeks.
On the economic front the news was less optimistic.
The eurozone economy is forecast to contract by an eye-watering 7.7 percent, EU Economic Affairs Commissioner Paulo Gentiloni said.
“Europe is facing an economic shock without precedent since the Great Depression,” he warned.
Governments are seeking to revive stalled economies by slowly lifting lockdown measures that have hemmed in more than 4.6 billion people worldwide — while avoiding a deadly second wave of the virus.
Germany forged ahead with its plans to reopen, and will allow all students back to school this month, all shops to reopen and even restart the top-flight football Bundesliga.
So far only some shops and schools have been open, and sports matches across the country have been suspended.
But fresh data revealed the extend of damage in some sectors: care sales plunged by 61 percent last month while new industrial orders hit a record low in March.
In Britain, the mayor of London eyed a gentler return to normal, saying pedestrian and cycle routes would be expanded to help people avoid public transport.
The UK on Tuesday overtook Italy for the highest number of deaths in Europe, and is now second after the US in terms of fatalities.
France is inching towards a May 11 deadline to allow some schools to open their doors again after almost two months, while lawmakers in Spain met Wednesday to vote on extending lockdown measures by two weeks.
The vote comes as Spain said foreign tourist arrivals plummeted by 64 percent in March, a major blow one of the country’s key economic lifelines.
Some residents were in favour of a gradual return to normal to avoid a resurgence of the disease that has paralysed the country.
“The end of confinement wouldn’t be bad, but we have to go through all the phases,” said Adrian, a gardener in Madrid, speaking to AFP from under a face mask.
“It’s better to have a bit more patience and end it well than rushing and having after another peak or another outbreak that hits us harder.”
As hopes of a quick economic recovery cooled, a war of words between China and the US heated up over the origins of the deadly coronavirus that first emerged in Wuhan last year.
China once again batted away accusations from Washington that the virus originated in a lab, accusing US politicians of peddling the theory for political gain.
“This matter should be handed to scientists and medical professionals, and not politicians who lie for their own domestic political ends,” China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.
Her remarks come after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said there was “enormous evidence” the virus came from a Chinese lab, a theory President Donald Trump has also lent credibility to.
Scientists believe the disease originated among animals and jumped to humans — possibly in a Wuhan wet market where wild animals were slaughtered and sold.
China’s envoy to the UN said Wednesday an investigation into the origins of the pandemic should only be carried out once the crisis is over.
“We need the right focus and allocation of our resources,” Chen Xu said. “It’s not that we are allergic to any kind of investigations, inquiries or evaluations.”
Trump is fighting a battle on another front — eager to get the world’s biggest economy restarted as he seeks reelection on November.
“We can’t keep our country closed for the next five years,” he said on a trip to a mask-making factory in Arizona, as he conceded that some people would be “badly affected”.
The US is by far the worst hit by the pandemic, with 71,000 deaths and 1.2 million infections — numbers that experts predict will continue to rise.
But in a sign his administration no longer considers the pandemic its top priority, the White House is set to disband the emergency task force handling the country’s outbreak.
“I think we’re starting to look at the Memorial Day (May 25) window, early June window” for shutting it down, Vice President Mike Pence said.
‘I’m so happy’
The comments came as elated senior students returned to school in Wuhan after weeks indoors under one of the world’s toughest lockdowns.
But there were new regulations to get used to in a new post-lockdown world: wearing face masks and filing passed thermal scanners, students were asked to sit at desks spaced one metre (over three feet) apart.
“School is finally reopening!” posted one user on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform.
“This is the first time that I’m so happy to go back to school, although I have to sit a monthly examination on the 8th.”
Elsewhere in Asia, familiar signs of life returned in South Korea, once home to the region’s second worst outbreak after China.
Workers went back to the office and museums and libraries opened again, in a country credited with getting the outbreak under control thanks to aggressive testing and tracing of cases.
In Seoul, about 100 people visited the national museum, where staffers handed out a bouquet of flowers to the first patrons at the door.
“Many of our colleagues also came back to work today, so we are very excited about the reopening, we are very happy,” museum spokeswoman Lee Hyun-ju told AFP.