European economy faces historic recession

Commission forecasts it to contract by 7.7% even as member countries are gradually easing restrictions

The EU on Wednesday forecast a historic recession on the continent battered by the deadly coronavirus pandemic, as the U.S. and China escalated their war of words over the origins of the disease.

The grim prediction from Brussels came as Europe’s biggest economy Germany unveiled plans for a near-return to normality, even as fresh data from the powerhouse revealed manufacturing and car sales have been badly hammered.

Countries in Asia joined step in easing punishing lockdowns that have kept swathes of humanity indoors for weeks and pummelled economies, tipping the world toward a recession not seen in decades.

Students in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the outbreak emerged in December, were back in classrooms Wednesday, while South Korea lept back to life with offices and museums open once again.

The pandemic has now killed more than 2,57,000 people globally and officially infected nearly 3.7 million, although with only the most serious cases being tested the number is believed to be far higher.

Europe accounts for the lion’s share of deaths and infections, though hardest hit Britain, Italy, Spain and France have started to see new cases and fatalities level off in recent weeks.

On the economic front the news was less optimistic.

The eurozone economy is forecast to contract by an eye-watering 7.7%, EU Economic Affairs Commissioner Paulo Gentiloni said.

“Europe is facing an economic shock without precedent since the Great Depression,” he warned.

Governments are seeking to revive stalled economies by slowly lifting lockdown measures that have hemmed in more than 4.6 billion people worldwide — while avoiding a second wave of the virus.

Germany forged ahead with its plans to reopen, and will allow all students back to school this month, all shops to reopen and even restart the top-flight football Bundesliga.

Drop in car sales

So far only some shops and schools have been open, and sports matches across the country have been suspended.

But fresh data revealed the extend of damage in some sectors: car sales plunged by 61% last month while new industrial orders hit a record low in March.

In Britain, the Mayor of London eyed a gentler return to normal, saying pedestrian and cycle routes would be expanded to help people avoid public transport.

The U.K. on Tuesday overtook Italy for the highest number of deaths in Europe, and is now second after the US in terms of fatalities.

France is inching towards a May 11 deadline to allow some schools to open their doors again after almost two months, while lawmakers in Spain met on Wednesday to vote on extending lockdown measures by two weeks.

The vote comes as Spain said foreign tourist arrivals plummeted by 64% in March, a major blow one of the country’s key economic lifelines.

Some residents were in favour of a gradual return to normal to avoid a resurgence of the disease that has paralysed the country.

“The end of confinement wouldn’t be bad, but we have to go through all the phases,” said Adrian, a gardener in Madrid. “It’s better to have a bit more patience.”

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