Global united action begins against COVID-19
AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo (The Philippine Star) - March 28, 2020 - 12:00am

The number of new coronavirus (COVID-19) infections has exceeded 500,000 persons worldwide, with more than 22,000 deaths resulting from it – but with 117,000 patients recovered. The intensifying global surge has spurred an ”avalanche” of government-ordered lockdowns (as one report described it), disrupting the lives of almost three billion people, 1.7 billion in India alone.

The swiftness and intensity of the spread of COVID-19 and the resultant lockdown responses have also evoked warnings from multilateral institutions and leading economists of a global recession, if not depression.

For instance, the World Trade Organization (WTO) has noted that economic downturns and job losses resulting from the pandemic (in the US, more than 3 million workers have applied for unemployment benefits) could be worse than the recession caused by the 2008 US-centered global financial and economic crisis. Economist Nouriel Roubini, who predicted the crisis of 2008, has described the “shock” of the COVID-19 outbreak as the “fastest and deepest in history.”

This week, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for global action and solidarity to deal with the crisis. He had earlier called for a global ceasefire between warring parties everywhere for the common purpose of focusing resources and manpower in fighting the new coronavirus pandemic. (President Duterte declared a unilateral ceasefire before Guterres’ call, and the local Communist Party has declared its own unilateral ceasefire in response to the UN appeal.)

Guterres has also appealed for $2 billion in urgent funding to help the world’s poor, who are the worst affected by the pandemic.

“COVID-19 is threatening the whole of humanity – and the whole of humanity must fight back,” Guterres declared. “Global action and solidarity are crucial, individual country responses are not going to be enough,” he emphasized.

Backstopping the UN call, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund urged the Group of 20 wealthiest nations (the G20 account for 80 percent of global GDP) to agree on providing immediate bilateral debt relief to any of the world’s 76 poorest countries that would request it. (Pakistan and Ethiopia have already asked.)

In a joint statement on March 25, the WB-IMF tandem called on creditor nations to immediately suspend debt payments falling due from member-countries of the International Development Association (IDA), a World Bank Group financing institution offering concessional loans and grants to the poorest nations. The 76 poorest nations represent 1/4 of the world’s population and 2/3 of the global population in extreme poverty. Suspension of debt payments will help them meet their immediate liquidity needs to tackle the challenges posed by COVID-19, the WB-IMF pointed out, and allow time for assessing its impact and the financing each country will need.

The WB-IMF move was timed with the decision by the G20 to hold an emergency video summit conference last Thursday, hosted by Saudi Arabia, this year’s G20 chair, to discuss a global response to the crisis.

Following its video summit, the G20 pledged a “united front” to fight COVID-19, acknowledging in its statement that the virus “respects no borders.” The group also agreed to inject more than $5 trillion into the global economy “as part of targeted fiscal policy, economic measures, and guarantees to counteract the social, economic, and financial impacts of the pandemic.”

Seemingly in response to the WB-IMF appeal, the G20 also pledged “robust” support for developing nations, which could be overrun next, after first ravaging China and currently Europe.

What needs to be closely watched is how the “united front” would unfold, and how the agreed $5 trillion infusion and the pledged robust support for developing countries would be carried out, and with due participation from all those concerned, especially the recipients.

Note that there’s a lingering concern among observers that the bickerings between the two biggest economies – the US and China – over their respective handling of the coronavirus crisis may prejudice the “united front.”

On the one hand, China recently relaxed travel restrictions in Hubei province while residents of its capital Wuhan may now leave the confines of their homes but not yet leave the city. This, after China’s authorities noted for a number of days the absence of new domestic COVID-19 cases.

The problem is, there have been 500 new cases recorded, all attributed to persons arriving in China from abroad; most of them were China residents returning from foreign travels. To check a resurgence of mass infections, the foreign ministry has announced drastic cuts in the country’s flight routes and has temporarily suspended the return of foreigners residing in China starting at midnight tomorrow.

What about the United States? As of March 26, it had topped China and Italy in the number of confirmed COVID-19 infections: 82,000-plus Americans have tested positive for the virus. This was a huge spike from 9,000 cases only a week ago. Before this revelation, President Trump had tried to belittle the pandemic’s impact both on the American people and their economy.

Without citing scientific evidence as basis, Trump announced that by Easter, or on April 13, social restrictions would be relaxed and there would be a “return to normal life.” Publicly, he was contradicted by two top officials. Both his chief healthcare official and adviser to the White House task force on COVID-19, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and the chair of the Federal Reserve (the US central bank), Jerome Powell, disagreed with him.

Fauci and other experts have warned that relaxing restrictions too early could risk escalating the pandemic. As to the economy, Powell warned on Thursday that the US may already be in recession. But lifting the restrictions that have negatively impacted the economy, he said, would be dictated by COVID-19.

The two of them agreed that “the first order of business is to get the virus under control, and then resume economic activity.”

All over the world, in each country ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, health facilities (hospitals) as well as medical and health staff are overwhelmed. This is the general situation today in both the wealthy and economically developed countries, such as in Europe and probably even in the US. Certainly, it must be worse in the developing nations. There have been recurring reports of shortages of testing kits and personal protective equipment for the frontline health and medical workers. These problems need urgent attention and action in a global way.

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