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Trump threatens to pull out of 'puppet' WHO

Washington―President Donald Trump has threatened to pull the United States out of the World Health Organization, accusing it of botching the global coronavirus response and of being a "puppet of China."

The American leader has been locked in a bitter spat with Beijing, alleging it covered up the initial outbreak in central China late last year before the disease unleashed death and economic devastation across the planet.

The WHO said it would launch an independent review of its response to the coronavirus pandemic, even as it kicked off its first-ever virtual assembly on Monday.

A resolution tabled by the European Union called for an "impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation" of the international response to the pandemic, which has so far infected nearly 4.8 million people and killed more than 317,000.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus acknowledged there had been shortcomings and told the virtual assembly he welcomed calls for a review.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic could cut up to 9.7 percent off the global economy, the Asian Development Bank said, doubling its previous estimate as the virus stifles trade and leaves millions jobless.

The estimated impact would cost as much as $8.8 trillion based on a range of scenarios, but ADB said government interventions could help offset the losses inflicted by the crisis.

Up to 242 million jobs will be lost due to the virus, more than seven times higher than the employment losses seen during the global financial crisis a decade ago. Foregone labour income could top $1.8 trillion. 

"These will be difficult to recoup," the Manila-based lender said, warning it could not discount the possibility of a financial crisis if the pandemic was not contained quickly enough to prevent defaults and bankruptcies.

With more fatalities and cases in the United States than any other country by far, under-pressure Trump has blamed the WHO for not doing enough to combat its initial spread.

"They're a puppet of China, they're China-centric to put it nicer," he said on Monday at the White House. "They gave us a lot of bad advice."

Trump had already suspended US funding to the UN body, and after his White House comments, he tweeted a letter he had sent to Tedros threatening to make that freeze permanent.

"It is clear the repeated missteps by you and your organization in responding to the pandemic have been extremely costly for the world," the letter said.

"The only way forward for the World Health Organization is if it can actually demonstrate independence from China," it added, giving the body 30 days to show "substantive improvements."

The WHO leader said: "I will initiate an independent evaluation at the earliest appropriate moment to review experience gained and lessons learned, and to make recommendations to improve national and global pandemic preparedness and response."

"But one thing is abundantly clear. The world must never be the same.

"We do not need a review to tell us that we must all do everything in our power to ensure this never happens again," Tedros said.

Beijing has furiously denied the US allegations that it played down the threat, and Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated at the World Health Assembly that his nation had been "transparent" throughout the crisis.

As he launched his latest attack on China, Trump also dropped a bombshell, saying he was taking hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug that his own government's experts have said is not suitable for fighting the coronavirus.

"I take a pill every day," said the president, adding that he is using it because he has "heard a lot of good stories."

'A test from God'

Experts have warned that the social distancing measures that have impacted more than half of humanity will remain necessary to stop the virus until a vaccine or viable medical treatment is available.

Development work on a prophylactic is underway at breakneck speed around the world, and results from a trial in the United States sparked optimism on Monday.

Early -- and small -- clinical trials of a vaccine by US firm Moderna showed encouraging results, with recipients showing an immune response similar to people recovering from COVID-19. It will begin a larger second-phase trial soon.

In China, meanwhile, scientists at Peking University have said they are developing a drug that can help stop the pandemic without a vaccine by using antibodies that can neutralize the virus.

They are planning clinical trials for the treatment, and are hoping to have the drug available later this year and in time for any potential winter outbreak.

Authorities around the world are keeping an eye on such breakthroughs as the virus continues on its destructive path, with many poorer nations now seeing a dramatic rise in infections even as the caseload eases in more developed parts of the world like Europe.

In Indonesia, gravediggers at a cemetery earmarked for COVID-19 victims in the capital Jakarta are struggling to keep up with the number of corpses arriving every day, trying not to touch the bodies and lessen the chance of getting infected themselves.

"I've been digging graves for 33 years now and I've never been this tired before," said gravedigger Minar.

"This is probably a test from God."

Violence in Chile

The vast economic damage caused by the virus has led to unprecedented emergency stimulus measures by governments and central banks, and the latest came from Europe where France and Germany laid out a half-trillion-euro fund.

The hard-hit continent has seen deaths and hospitalizations drop in recent days, sparking optimism about a post-pandemic recovery.

The daily death count in the United States has also slowed over the last couple of days, as all 50 states began easing lockdown measures to varying degrees.

But other parts of the world—especially developing countries—are only just starting to feel the full force of the virus.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Monday many governments had ignored WHO recommendations.

"As a result, the virus has spread across the world and is now moving into the Global South, where its impact may be even more devastating," he warned.

Already, Brazil has overtaken Britain to have the third-highest number of infections in the world with around 255,000 confirmed cases, and the death toll in Latin America and the Caribbean has topped 30,000.

In Chile, where the government has imposed strict distancing measures in some areas after a dramatic rise in cases, the economic pressure from lockdowns was brought into sharp focus as violence erupted in a crowded, poor area on the outskirts of the capital Santiago.

Angry residents wielding sticks erected barricades and threw rocks at riot police, who fought back with tear gas and water cannon.

"It is not because of the quarantine," resident Veronica Abarca told AFP.

"It is aid, food, what people are asking for right now." 

Topics: Donald Trump. World Health Organization , global coronavirus response , "puppet of China"
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