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COVID-19 pushes US job losses to 22 million


WASHINGTON (AP) — The ranks of Americans thrown out of work by the novel coronavirus ballooned yesterday to at least 22 million in an unprecedented collapse that has fuelled widening protests and propelled President Donald Trump’s push to relax the nation’s social distancing guidelines.

Trump was expected to announce new recommendations to allow states to reopen, despite warnings from business leaders and governors that more testing and protective gear are needed first.

The Government said 5.2 million more people applied for unemployment benefits last week, bringing the four-week total to about 22 million out of a US workforce of roughly 159 million — easily the worst stretch of US job losses on record. The losses amount to about 1 in 7 workers.

Some economists said the unemployment rate could reach 20 per cent in April, the highest since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

While some leaders and citizens around the US have called on Government to reopen stores, factories, and schools — especially in rural areas and other parts of the country that have not seen major outbreaks — health authorities and many politicians warned that returning to normal is a distant goal and that lifting restrictions too soon could allow the virus to come storming back.

The decision of when and how to ease up rests not with the White House but with state and local leaders, who imposed the mandatory lockdowns and other restrictions over the past month.

Mayor Bill de Blasio of hard-hit New York City, with more than one-third of the nation’s coronavirus deaths, was among those urging caution.

“Everyone wants our economy to restart…but there has to be a really clear understanding,” he said. “If we can’t provide the basics for our people, then you can kiss your recovery goodbye.”

The outbreak has infected more than two million people worldwide and killed approximately 140,000, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University, though the true numbers are believed to be much higher. The death toll in the US topped 31,000, with over 600,000 confirmed infections.

The World Health Organization’s European chief said optimism that the spread of the virus is declining in Italy, Spain, and France has been tempered by the knowledge that it is rising or remaining 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 economic fallout, meanwhile, escalated around the world.

In France, Amazon suspended operations after a court ruled it wasn’t doing enough to protect its workers in the country. The online retailer has six warehouses in France. In Britain, a government survey found that a quarter of companies had suspended business. Cargo traffic at Europe’s huge port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands sank more than nine per cent in the first quarter.

In the US, the Government said home-building collapsed in March, with housing starts tumbling 22.3 per cent from a month ago. A day earlier, the US reported that American industrial output shrivelled in March, registering its biggest decline since the nation demobilised in 1946 at the end of World War II. Retail sales fell by an unprecedented 8.7 per cent, with April expected to be much worse.

Layoffs in the US are spreading well beyond stores, restaurants, and hotels, reaching white-collar professionals such as software programmers, legal assistants, and other office workers.

Many European countries have likewise seen heavy job losses, but the social safety nets there are stronger. Government subsidy programmes in places like Germany and France are keeping millions of people on payrolls instead of letting them go onto the unemployment rolls.

The International Monetary Fund said fallout from what it calls the “Great Lockdown” will be the most devastating since the Depression. That has made leaders all the more anxious to send people back to work and school and to rebuild devastated economies.

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