US President Donald Trump on Tuesday cut off funding to the World Health Organisation, accusing the UN body of mishandling the coronavirus crisis as governments grapple with how and when to get their struggling economies back to work.
The deadly pandemic has already killed more than 125,000 people and infected nearly two million worldwide since it first emerged in China late last year.
The novel coronavirus has also upended the lives of billions of people as nations imposed lockdown measures to curb its spread – undoubtedly reducing the death toll, but also sending the global economy into a tailspin. As the tally of deaths and new infections appears to begin levelling off, world leaders and citizens are fiercely debating when to lift stay-at-home orders.
Trump said he could see "rays of light" on the horizon for the world's largest economy, but launched a virulent attack on the WHO for "severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus." He accused the Geneva-based agency of propagating "false information" and charged that its reliance on Chinese data had "likely caused a 20-fold increase in cases worldwide."
The US contributed US$400 million to the WHO last year.
Trump had made no secret of his contempt for what he calls a "China-centric" institution, but his caustic barbs raised hackles – especially when the crisis is far from over.
It was "not the time to reduce the resources" of WHO, said UN chief António Guterres in response to Trump's remarks, adding the organisation was "absolutely critical to the world's efforts to win the war" against the virus.
Some shops in Austria and Italy reopened Tuesday, one day after Spain allowed construction and factory workers to return to their jobs. But France extended its nationwide lockdown for another month, and India extended confinement orders for its 1.3 billion people until at least May 3.
And dire economic forecasts poured in throughout the day.
- 'The Great Lockdown' -
The International Monetary Fund predicted the "Great Lockdown" would spark the worst global downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The Washington-based IMF said the global economy is expected to shrink by three percent this year – and the US economy is expected to contract by 5.9 percent.
"Much worse growth outcomes are possible and maybe even likely," it said.
IMF chief economist Gita Gopinath said in 2020 and 2021, global GDP could slip by three percent or about US$9 trillion – "greater than the economies of Japan and Germany combined."
But if the virus is contained and economies can begin operating again, 2021 should see a rebound of 5.8 percent, the Fund added.
Individual governments also issued gut-wrenching outlooks – France said its economy would shrink by a worse-than-expected eight percent in 2020, and Britain predicted a 13 percent drop in GDP.
In a bit of good news, the US Treasury announced a deal with the country's major airlines aimed at keeping workers paid and avoiding bankruptcies in an industry that employs 750,000 people. Details were not immediately disclosed.
- 'Hope it's not too early' -
Around the globe, some countries showed signs of setting off on the long road back to normalcy.
Vienna's popular Favoriten shopping district drew mask-clad shoppers after the government allowed some small stores as well as hardware and gardening shops to reopen across Austria, which has been spared the worst of the virus.
"I just hope by God that it's not too early" to ease the lockdown, 75-year-old pensioner Anita Kakac told AFP.
In Italy, children's clothing shops and bookstores opened their doors Tuesday, but some fearful owners kept their boutiques shuttered. Italy's death toll is now above 20,000 – the second worst after the US, though far higher per capita – but deaths and infections have eased off.
Denmark planned to open some of its schools Wednesday after a month-long shutdown, and the Czech government said it would begin easing lockdown measures on April 20.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has warned that control measures "must be lifted slowly," noting that the coronavirus was 10 times deadlier than the 2009-2010 swine flu outbreak.
- 'We are changing the curve' -
In the United States, the death toll hit a record 2,228 fatalities in 24 hours up to Tuesday evening, according to a running tally by Johns Hopkins University.
But new hospital admissions and infections in hard-hit New York state were down, and Governor Andrew Cuomo offered a glimmer of hope. "We are changing the curve, every day. We've shown that we control the virus – the virus doesn't control us," Cuomo said.
Trump sparked controversy on Monday by implying he could force state governors and city mayors to send people back to work at his command. On Tuesday, he insisted the federal government and state leaders were working together to come up with a workable solution, and that he and the governors were "all getting along."
But the Republican president, who is running for re-election in November, also warned: "The governors are responsible. They have to take charge. They have to do a great job."
Local leaders on both US coasts have banded together and said they will make their own decisions – and proceed with caution.
"I don't want to make a political decision that puts people's lives at risk and puts the economy at even more risk," California Governor Gavin Newsom said.