Virus' effect on world economy grows; Trump lashes out at criticism

Medical personnel wearing protective gear guide drivers
Medical personnel wearing protective gear guide drivers with suspected symptoms of the COVID-19 coronavirus at a "drive-thru" virus test facility in Goyang, north of Seoul, on Saturday.
Jung Yeon-je | AFP via Getty Images

The coronavirus outbreak's impact on the world economy grew more alarming on Saturday, while President Trump denounced criticism of his response to the threat as a “hoax" cooked up by his political enemies.

China’s manufacturing plunged in February by an even wider margin than expected after efforts to contain the virus outbreak shut down much of the world’s second-largest economy, an official survey showed Saturday.

The survey, coming as global stock markets fall on fears the virus will spread abroad, adds to mounting evidence of the vast cost of the disease that emerged in central China in December and its economic impact worldwide.

The monthly purchasing managers’ index issued by the Chinese statistics agency and an industry group fell to 35.7 from January’s 50 on a 100-point scale on which numbers below 50 indicate activity contracting.

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Iran is preparing for the possibility of “tens of thousands” of people getting tested for the virus as the number of confirmed cases spiked again Saturday, an official said, underscoring the fear both at home and abroad over the outbreak in the Islamic Republic.

The virus and the COVID-19 illness it causes have killed 43 people out of 593 confirmed cases in Iran, Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said. The new toll represents a jump of 205 cases — a 150 percent increase from the 388 reported the day before.

A worker disinfects a public bus
A worker disinfects a public bus against the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Skopje, North Macedonia, on Saturday. The country has confirmed its first case of the coronavirus infection, diagnosed in a woman who recently arrived from Italy.
Robert Atanasovski AFP via Getty Images

But the number of known cases versus deaths would put the virus' death rate in Iran at over 7 percent, much higher than other countries. That's worried experts at the World Health Organization and elsewhere that Iran may be underreporting the number of cases now affecting it.

Earlier Saturday, Bahrain threatened legal prosecution against travelers who came from Iran and hadn't been tested for the virus, and also barred public gatherings for two weeks.

Saudi Arabia said it would bar citizens of the Gulf Cooperation Council from Islam's holiest sites in Mecca and Medina over concerns about the virus' spread. The GCC is a six-nation group including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

On Thursday, Saudi Arabia closed off the holy sites to foreign pilgrims over the coronavirus, disrupting travel for thousands of Muslims already headed to the kingdom and potentially affecting plans later this year for millions more ahead of the fasting month of Ramadan and the annual hajj pilgrimage.

Elsewhere around the world, already slumping financial markets dropped even lower on Friday, while virus fears led to emptied shops and amusement parks, canceled events, and drastically reduced trade and travel.

Despite anxieties about a wider outbreak in the U.S., Trump has defended measures taken and lashed out Friday at Democrats who have questioned his handling of the threat, calling their criticism a new “hoax” intended to undermine his leadership.

At a political rally in South Carolina, Trump sought to steal some of the spotlight from his Democratic rivals who were campaigning across the state on the evening before its presidential primary.

Trump accused Democrats of “politicizing” the coronavirus threat and boasted about preventive steps he's ordered in an attempt to keep the virus that originated in China from spreading across the United States.

“They tried the impeachment hoax. ... This is their new hoax,” Trump said of Democratic denunciations of his administration's coronavirus response.

Some Democrats have said Trump could have acted sooner to bolster the U.S. response to the virus. Democratic and Republican lawmakers also have said his request for an additional $2.5 billion to defend against the virus isn't enough. They've signaled they will provide substantially more funding.

Trump said Democrats want him to fail and argued that steps he's taken so far have kept cases to a minimum and prevented virus deaths in the U.S. The president acknowledged the virus could lead to deaths in the U.S., but said, “We're totally prepared.”

Shortly before Trump began to speak, health officials confirmed a second case of coronavirus in the U.S. in a person who didn't travel internationally or have close contact with anyone who had the virus.

The list of countries touched by the virus has climbed to nearly 60. More than 85,000 people worldwide have contracted the virus, with deaths topping 2,900.

Even in isolated, sanctions-hit North Korea, leader Kim Jong Un called for stronger anti-virus efforts to guard against COVID-19, saying there will be “serious consequences” if the illness spreads to the country.

China has seen a slowdown in new infections and on Saturday morning reported 427 new cases over the past 24 hours along with 47 additional deaths. The city at the epicenter of the outbreak, Wuhan, accounted for the bulk of both. The ruling party is striving to restore public and business confidence and avert a deeper economic downturn and politically risky job losses after weeks of disruptions due to the viral outbreak.

South Korea, the second hardest hit country, reported 813 new cases on Saturday — the highest daily jump since confirming its first patient in late January and raising its total to 3,150. Emerging clusters in Italy and in Iran have led to infections of people in other countries. France and Germany were also seeing increases, with dozens of infections.

Streets were deserted in the city of Sapporo on Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido, where a state of emergency was issued until mid-March. Seventy cases — the largest from a single prefecture in Japan — have been detected in the island prefecture.

The archbishop of Paris asked all of the French capital’s parish priests to change the way they administer communion to counter the spread of the coronavirus.

Bishop Michel Aupetit instructed that priests no longer put the sacramental bread in the mouths of worshippers celebrating communion and instead place it in their hands. He also asked that worshippers not drink wine directly from a shared chalice, and that sacramental bread instead be dipped in wine.

The bishop’s instructions were listed in a statement Saturday from the Paris diocese. It said a Paris priest tested positive for the virus on Friday after returning from Italy.

The head of the World Health Organization on Friday announced that the risk of the virus spreading worldwide was “very high," while U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the “window of opportunity" for containing the virus was narrowing.

Stock markets around the world plunged again Friday. On Wall Street, the Dow Jones index took yet another hit, closing down nearly 360 points. The index has dropped more than 14 percent from a recent high, making this the market's worst week since 2008, during the global financial crisis.

In Asia, Tokyo Disneyland and Universal Studios Japan announced they would close, and events that were expected to attract tens of thousands of people were called off, including a concert series by the K-pop group BTS.

Tourist arrivals in Thailand are down 50 percent compared with a year ago, and in Italy — which has reported 888 cases, the most of any country outside of Asia — hotel bookings are falling and Premier Giuseppe Conte raised the specter of recession.

Europe's economy is already teetering on the edge of recession. A measure of business sentiment in Germany fell sharply last week, suggesting that some companies could postpone investment and expansion plans. China is a huge export market for German manufacturers.

Economists have forecast global growth will slip to 2.4 percent this year, the slowest since the Great Recession in 2009, and down from earlier expectations closer to 3 percent. For the United States, estimates are falling to as low as 1.7 percent growth this year, down from 2.3 percent in 2019.

But if COVID-19 becomes a global pandemic, economists expect the impact could be much worse, with the U.S. and other global economies possibly falling into recession.