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World leaders to hold crisis talks as virus toll tops 21,000

AFP / Pau Barrena A Spanish soldier stands next to beds set up at a temporary hospital in Barcelona

World leaders are to hold online crisis talks Thursday on the coronavirus pandemic that has forced three billion people into lockdown and claimed more than 21,000 lives.

With the disease tearing around the globe at a terrifying pace, warnings are multiplying over its economic consequences, and experts are saying it could cause more damage than the Great Depression.

Amid squabbling between the leaders of China and the US over who is to blame, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for the world to act together to halt the menace.

"COVID-19 is threatening the whole of humanity -- and the whole of humanity must fight back," Guterres said, launching an appeal for $2 billion to help the world's poor.

"Global action and solidarity are crucial," he said. "Individual country responses are not going to be enough."

The global lockdown -- which rolled through India's huge population this week -- tightened further Thursday as Russia announced it was grounding all international flights.

AFP / Ye Aung THU Workers wearing protective clothing disinfect a hotel as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus in Yangon, Myanmar

Economists say the restrictions imposed around the world to fight the virus could cause the most violent recession in recent history.

"The G20 economies will experience an unprecedented shock in the first half of this year and will contract in 2020 as a whole," ratings agency Moody's said.

Unemployment rates are expected to soar -- as much as 30 percent in the US, according to James Bullard, president of the St Louis Federal Reserve.

Europe will also suffer.

"We think the unemployment rate in the eurozone will surge to about 12 percent by the end of June, giving up seven years' worth of gains in a matter of months," said David Oxley of London-based Capital Economics.

Leaders of the G20 major economies will hold a virtual huddle later Thursday in the shadow of such dire predictions.

AFP / SANJAY KANOJIA People stand on designated areas to maintain social distancing as they queue outside a medical store in Allahabad, India

"As the world confronts the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges to healthcare systems and the global economy, we convene this extraordinary G20 summit to unite efforts towards a global response," tweeted the king of Saudi Arabia. Saudi currently holds the rotating G20 presidency.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said richer nations needed to offer support to low and middle income countries, including those in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The devastating effect on poorer countries was laid bare Thursday, when the Philippines announced that nine frontline doctors had died after contracting COVID-19.

Three large Manila hospitals said this week they had reached capacity and would no longer accept new coronavirus cases.

Hundreds of medical staff are undergoing 14-day self-quarantines after suspected exposure, the hospitals said.

- Gun rush -

The death toll from the virus, which emerged in China late last year, continued to grow, with the US becoming the sixth country to hit four figures.

AFP / Raul ARBOLEDA An empty Bolivar square in Bogota, after Colombian President Ivan Duque announced mandatory preventive isolation from March 24 to April 13

At least 1,050 people are now known to have died in the United States, with almost 70,000 confirmed infections, a tally by Johns Hopkins University showed, while globally the number of infections is closing in on half a million.

The rocketing infection rate in the US has sparked a rush to buy weapons, gun store owners told AFP, with customers panicking about social breakdown.

"A lot of people are buying shotguns, handguns, AR-15 (semi-automatic rifles), everything," said Tiffany Teasdale, who sells guns in Washington state.

AFP / OSCAR DEL POZO A health worker carries a body on a stretcher outside Gregorio Maranon hospital in Madrid

"A lot of people are scared that someone is going to break into their home... to steal cash, their toilet paper, their bottled water, their food."

Around half of the US population is under lockdown, but President Donald Trump said he would decide soon whether unaffected parts of the country can get back to work.

"We want to get our country going again," Trump said. "I'm not going to do anything rash or hastily.

"By Easter we'll have a recommendation and maybe before Easter," said Trump.

AFP / Jack TAYLOR Blocked out seats ensure travellers observe social distancing rules at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok

The White House, which has been criticised for its lacklustre response to the mushrooming crisis, has repeatedly lashed out at Beijing over the disease.

On Wednesday Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Group of Seven powers were united against China's "disinformation" campaign.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman infuriated Washington by suggesting on Twitter that US troops brought the virus to Wuhan, the metropolis where it was first detected late last year.

- Stigmatising -

Scientists believe the new coronavirus came from a market that butchered exotic animals.

AFP / Khaled DESOUKI Egypt's landmark Tahrir Square in Cairo stands empty on the first evening of a two-week long night-time curfew imposed by the authorities

"Every one of the nations that were at that meeting this morning was deeply aware of the disinformation campaign that the Chinese Communist Party is engaged in to try and deflect from what has really taken place," Pompeo told reporters.

But any notion of unity after the videoconference among the G7, which also includes Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan, was dashed by the lack of a joint statement -- often a formality at such gatherings.

Reports suggested the statement was scuttled by Pompeo's insistence that it use the term "Wuhan virus" -- a formulation frowned upon by medical professionals who say it is stigmatising.

Individual stories of heartbreak continued to emerge.

At La Paz University Hospital in Madrid, nurse Guillen del Barrio sounded bereft as he related what happened overnight.

"It is really hard, we had feverish people for many hours in the waiting room," the 30-year-old told AFP.

"Many of my colleagues were crying because there were people who are dying alone, without seeing their family for the last time."

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