Global coronavirus infections have passed two million as tens of millions of people began to receive emergency relief cheques and retail sales in the world’s largest economy suffered a major hit.
Worldwide, deaths have also topped 128,000, according to the tally kept by the United States’ Johns Hopkins University.
The United States
US government relief cheques have begun arriving in citizens’ bank accounts.
The world’s biggest economy this week began issuing one-time payments to tens of millions of people as part of its $US2.2 trillion ($A3.5 trillion) coronavirus relief package, with adults receiving up to $US1200 ($A1903) each and $US500 ($A793) per child to help households make the rent or cover other bills.
The cheques will be directly deposited into bank accounts or mailed to households, depending on how they filed their tax returns in the past.
With lockdowns and other restrictions bringing factories to a shuddering halt, US industrial output also shrivelled in March, registering its biggest decline since the country demobilised in 1946 at the end of World War II, and retail sales fell by an unprecedented 8.7 per cent – with April expected to be far worse.
Signifying a huge shift in consumer behaviour, grocery store sales in the US jumped nearly 26 per cent as people stocked up on food and consumer goods to ride out the crisis, while car sales plummeted by one-quarter and clothing store sales slid by more than half, the government reported.
The category that mostly includes online shopping rose more than 3.0 per cent.
“With clear signs of panic buying of necessities and the fact that lockdowns were introduced only around the middle of the month means that far worse is to come in April and the second quarter more generally,” said Michael Pearce, an economist at the consulting firm Capital Economics.
US President Donald Trump has been anxious to lift stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns in the country but those aspirations continue to meet stiff resistance on the state and local levels.
On Wednesday, a day after New York City added nearly 4000 deaths to its toll, in part by counting people who were believed to have the virus but were never tested before they died, Mayor Bill de Blasio told Fox News that he intends to move cautiously.
“In this case, I’ll call myself a conservative,” said de Blasio, whose city’s death toll now tops 10,000.
“Look, I want to see people back to work as much as anyone. I feel it urgently. But we’ve got to secure the health and safety first of all New Yorkers and, obviously, all Americans… We get one chance to get it right.”
The US has reported more than 26,000 deaths – the highest in the world – and more than 600,000 confirmed infections, by Johns Hopkins’ count.
Still, the nightmare scenarios projecting a far greater number of deaths and hospitalisations have not come to pass, raising hopes from coast to coast.
Meanwhile, the European Union echoed concerns raised in the US, even as it published a 16-page road map plotting a united course out of the crisis for its 27 member countries.
The EU warned that “any level of gradual relaxation of confinement measures will unavoidably lead to a corresponding increase in new cases”.
The World Health Organisation’s special envoy for COVID-19 David Nabarro urged that any recriminations about the organisation be left until after the virus has been defeated.
In Spain, the daily number of deaths fell slightly from 567 to 523, the health ministry said, as the country ramps up testing that could allow it to further ease tough restrictions.
With the total number of fatalities at 18,579, Spain remains one of the world’s worst-affected countries, with only the United States and Italy recording higher death tolls.
But there is growing evidence the government is managing to flatten the curve on deaths and infections. The official tally of cases rose to 177,633 on Wednesday from 172,541 the day before, the ministry said.
The loosening of restrictions began this week as some non-essential businesses were allowed to resume work.
The scene was similar in hard-hit Italy, where the streets of Rome were largely deserted despite an easing of restrictions this week that allowed some stores to reopen.
Despite that, Italy’s coronavirus death toll rose on Wednesday by 578, bringing the nation’s total number of fatalities to 21,645.
The rise is slightly lower than the 602 deaths announced yesterday, while Italy’s infections rose by 2667 – the lowest daily jump since March 13 – to 165,155.
Deaths in Italy have stubbornly hovered between 525 and 636 for the last 11 days despite a brief drop on Easter Sunday that was reversed the day after.
In the United Kingdom, 761 further coronavirus deaths were registered over the past 24 hours, bringing the country’s total toll up to 12,868.
More than 4600 people also tested positive for COVID-19 since yesterday, raising the total number of infections since the pandemic began to 98,476.
The UK is part-way through its fourth week of a nationwide lockdown, with an extension to the conditions expected to be announced by Thursday.
It comes as the country’s Health Minister Matt Hancock said he is introducing measures for family members and loved ones to be allowed to be with people who die in care homes.
In China, millions are still wary of spending much or even going out. Some cities have resorted to handing out shopping vouchers and trying to reassure consumers by showing officials in state media eating in restaurants.
“I put off plans to change cars and spend almost nothing on eating out or entertainment,” said Zhang Hu, a truck salesman in Zhengzhou who has gone back to work but has seen his income plummet because few people are looking to buy 20-tonne rigs.
“I have no idea when the situation will turn better.”
Millions of South Korean voters, meanwhile, wore masks and maintained social distancing on Wednesday as they voted in parliamentary elections, with turnout surprisingly high.
The government resisted calls to postpone the balloting, seen as a midterm referendum on President Moon Jae-in.
A parliamentary report in Iran said the country’s death toll is probably almost twice the officially reported figure of almost 4800 as a result of undercounting and because not everyone with breathing problems has been tested for the virus.
The explosive allegation was buried in a footnote in the 46-page document.
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