EU readies trillion-euro aid plan as virus hammers Latin America

Dave CLARK with AFP bureaus
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The massive European recovery proposal follows other unprecedented emergency measures introduced around the world to rescue economies shattered by the disease

The massive European recovery proposal follows other unprecedented emergency measures introduced around the world to rescue economies shattered by the disease (AFP Photo/Juan BARRETO)

Brussels (AFP) - A one-trillion-euro recovery plan to get Europe back on its feet after the devastation wreaked by the coronavirus pandemic was set to be unveiled Wednesday, as badly hit Spain started 10 days of national mourning for its thousands of dead.

The massive European proposal follows other unprecedented emergency measures introduced around the world to rescue economies shattered by the disease, which has claimed more than 350,000 lives with infections rapidly approaching 5.6 million.

While the virus continues to cause havoc in Latin America, Europe has slowly started reopening businesses as outbreaks on the continent slow, but Italy and Spain -- two of the hardest-hit countries -- lack the firepower of richer European nations to rebuild their economies.

European Union chief Ursula von der Leyen will deliver a one-trillion-euro proposal to the European Parliament on Wednesday, aiming to help the worst-affected countries using a mix of grants and loans.

That is expected to kick off tough negotiations, as backers try to win the support of some northern EU states that are opposed to paying out aid in grants to nations already under mountains of debt -- such as Italy and Spain.

The proposal comes as the continent -- which has lost at least 172,000 people to COVID-19 -- grapples with the human tragedy and economic destruction.

Spain on Wednesday will begin a 10-day official mourning for the more than 27,000 people who died of the disease in the country, with all flags on public buildings lowered to half-mast.

The Iberian nation and others hit particularly hard such as Italy, Germany, France and Britain have all started easing their lockdowns, as people head to shops, sunbathe at beaches and run in parks after months of confinement.

Russia, meanwhile, said it had passed its peak of infections, promising to hold postponed World War II victory celebrations next month.

While desperate to kickstart their economies, especially the tourism sector, most governments in Europe are also trying to move cautiously towards a reopen, afraid of a second wave of infections.

That fear has meant some activities have been allowed again, while others must wait -- including singing.

After horror stories emerged from choirs around the world of mass infections among singers, the activity is now considered dangerous by German authorities.

At the Church of the Twelve Apostles in Berlin's Schoeneberg district, there have been no choir rehearsals since early March.

"I do miss it," said soprano Heike Benda-Blanck. "You can still sing in the shower but it's not the same."

- 'Still accelerating' -

But while many Western nations were inching back towards some form of normality, the virus was continued its march in Latin America, which has outpaced Europe and the United States in the number of daily infections.

"We are particularly concerned that the number of new cases reported last week in Brazil was the highest for a seven-day period, since the outbreak began," said Carissa Etienne, director of the Washington-based Pan American Health Organization.

"Both Peru and Chile are also reporting a high incidence, a sign that transmission is still accelerating in these countries."

Brazil reported the highest daily death toll in the world for the fifth straight day, pushing its total to 24,512 with infections soaring to more than 390,000.

The virus is also fuelling a political crisis in Brazil, where right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro has downplayed the COVID-19 threat and lashed out at state governors who have asked people to stay at home.

Police on Tuesday raided the official residence of one of Bolsonaro's leading critics over the response, Rio de Janeiro Governor Wilson Witzel, alleging he embezzled public funds for the virus.

Witzel called the raid "political persecution" and warned: "What happened to me is going to happen to other governors who are considered enemies."

- 'Absolute fool' -

The United States remains the hardest-hit nation in the world, and with its death toll approaching 100,000, President Donald Trump has weathered a torrent of criticism for his handling of the crisis -- and for not wearing a mask in public despite recommendations from his own administration's experts.

The right-wing leader, battling to get re-elected this year, kicked off another storm by retweeting criticism of his presumptive election rival, Joe Biden, for following guidelines by wearing a mask during Memorial Day commemorations.

Biden hit back, blasting Trump as an "absolute fool".

Trump is keen for a quick turnaround with the US economy battered and tens of millions unemployed, and has pressured local and state leaders to ease lockdowns.

Across the Pacific, Japan -- the world's third-largest economy -- has already started a cautious rollback of virus restrictions, ending a state of emergency on Monday.

And as Japan's funfairs slowly open, a group of park operators released joint guidelines on virus safety, including visitors wearing masks at all times.

They recommended that thrill-seekers on rollercoasters and other rides refrain from screaming, and park staff dressed as superheroes and stuffed animal mascots not shake hands with or high-five fans.

The guidelines also include appropriate social distancing between ghosts and victims in haunted houses.

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