EU pledges €25bn fund to tackle coronavirus crisis as deaths in Italy rise
Brussels — The European Commission will set up an EU fund with a firepower of €25bn to tackle the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus outbreak, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said on Tuesday.
Von der Leyen said after an emergency videoconference of EU leaders that the investment fund should be financed with €7.5bn of EU money and help vulnerable sectors of the economy.
“This instrument will reach €25bn quickly. To realise this I will propose to council and parliament this week to release €7.5bn of investment liquidity,” Von der Leyen told a news conference in Brussels.
Money should start flowing in the coming weeks, she said, adding funds will be channelled to health-care systems, smaller companies and the labour market.
European Council president Charles Michel said EU leaders agreed to provide liquidity against the crisis. EU fiscal rules and regulations on state aid will also be relaxed to facilitate public spending, he said.
Italy on Tuesday recorded its deadliest day of the outbreak. The death toll there jumped by 168 to 631, with 10,149 infections in just more than two weeks.
Quarantines and travel restrictions faced a rocky start in the country of 60-million people. Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte earlier told citizens they should travel only for the most urgent work or health reasons and warned against panic buying.
He called on ECB president Christine Lagarde to take drastic action at the central bank’s meeting on Thursday to help shore up the economy, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Governments elsewhere in Europe were also scrambling to balance their responses between restrictions and pushing out accurate information to avoid panic.
In Geneva, the World Trade Organisation said it would suspend all meetings until March 20 after one of its staff members contracted the virus.
Sport schedules have been wrecked across Europe, with Barcelona’s Champions League football match against Napoli next Wednesday the latest to fall prey to the virus. It will be played behind closed doors.
French President Emmanuel Macron provided a reminder of Europe's plight, warning that his country was “just at the beginning” of its outbreak, Europe's second worst, with 1,784 infected and 33 dead.
Slovenia said it was closing its border with Italy, while Austria announced bans on trains and flights to the neighbouring country.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping, meanwhile, sought to ease concerns in the country where the virus was first detected in December, making his first visit to the epicentre of Wuhan and declaring the spread in the central city and Hubei province to be “basically curbed”.
Official figures showed daily infections in China are at their lowest since record keeping began in January, with 19 new infections and 17 deaths recorded on Tuesday, after a similar flatlining of cases in South Korea.
China remains the hardest hit overall with more than 80,000 cases and over 3,000 deaths out of a global total of 117,339 cases and 4,251 deaths across 105 countries and territories, a tally showed.
Reflecting the differing stages of the outbreak, China relaxed some of its most severe restrictions in Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak, at the same moment as several European countries went on full alert mode.
On the world’s financial markets, stocks and oil bounced back on hopes of US economic stimulus measures, after suffering their biggest one-day losses since 2008 on Monday.
The S&P 500 rallied 4.9% as investors digested a trickle of news that US President Donald Trump and his team are looking at measures including cutting payroll taxes and aiding ailing businesses such as airlines and cruise operators.
There are concerns that the US could become another hotspot, with at least 26 deaths and 605 confirmed infections so far.
In the Middle East, Iran registered 54 new deaths — the highest single-day toll so far in the country with the third-deadliest outbreak in the world. A total of 291 people have now died in the Islamic Republic.
In Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo confirmed its first coronavirus case in the capital Kinshasa, a city of more than 10-million people. The news comes as the country prepared to declare in April an end to the 19-month Ebola epidemic that has killed 2,264 people.