EU proposes huge aid plan as virus hammers Latin America

Brussels (AFP) –


The EU unveiled a proposed 750-billion-euro recovery plan Wednesday to get the continent back on its feet after the devastation wreaked by the coronavirus pandemic, as Latin America outpaced Europe and the US in the number of daily infections.

The massive European plan 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 lack the firepower of richer European nations to rebuild their economies.

The European Commission put forward a 750 billion euro ($825 billion) proposal to the European Parliament and member states on Wednesday, aiming to help the worst-affected countries with a mix of grants and loans.

Economic Affairs Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni hailed the proposal as a "European breakthrough" that would "tackle an unprecedented crisis".

Last week EU officials said the recovery package could be as much as one trillion euros, but the amount was announced Wednesday as 750 billion euros -- a mixture of grants a loan credits.

Heavily indebted Italy and Spain are slated to be the biggest beneficiaries, according to a document seen by AFP. Italy would receive up to 81.8 billion in direct aid and 90.9 billion in loans, while Spain would receive 77.3 billion in aid and 63.1 billion in credits, the document said.

The proposed package is expected to kick off tough negotiations, as backers try to win the support of some northern EU states that oppose 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 173,000 people to COVID-19 -- grapples with the human tragedy and economic destruction.

Spain on Wednesday will begin 10 days of official mourning for the more than 27,000 people who died in the country, with all flags on public buildings at 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, afraid of a second wave of infections.

That fear has meant some activities have been allowed again, while others must wait -- including choir 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 are inching back towards some form of normality, the virus has 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 a 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".

But Trump's principal preoccupation has been for a quick turnaround for the badly battered US economy, and has pressured local and state leaders to ease lockdowns.

The US leader kicked up a fresh cloud of controversy this month when he said he was taking the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as a preventative measure against coronavirus.

France said Wednesday it was banning the drug as a COVID-19 treatment, following a similar decision by the World Health Organization over fears of the drug's dangerous side effects.

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.

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.