Trump wades further into China Covid-19 row as focus turns to easing lockdowns

Donald Trump has again questioned China’s transparency over the coronavirus outbreak, casting doubt on the origins of the virus and number of cases, while signalling the US would soon join countries across Europe in easing its lockdown.

“Do you really believe those numbers in this vast country called China?” the US president said, when asked about the severity of the US death toll at a White House press briefing. “We report everything, we’re reporting the cases and our reporting is good. We’re reporting every death.”

Worldwide, cases have topped 2 million, with more than 137,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. The US accounts for more than 638,000 cases, and close to 31,000 deaths, while China has recorded a little over 83,000 cases and 3,300 deaths.

Trump went on to endorse a theory that the naturally occurring virus escaped a laboratory in Wuhan, saying: “We’re hearing the story, and we’ll see … but we are doing a very thorough examination of this horrible situation that happened.” Secretary of state Mike Pompeo later told Fox News the Wuhan virus lab was near the wet market and said: “The Chinese government needs to come clean.”

China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian did not directly address Trump’s comments during a daily briefing on Thursday. But he did say that World Health Organization’s officials “have said multiple times there is no evidence the new coronavirus was created in a laboratory”.

Trump’s comments provoked an angry response from the editor of the state-run Global Times.

Hu Xijin 胡锡进

Fox News published a ridiculous report claiming COVID-19 originated in a Wuhan lab. President Trump helped hype this story to divert public’s attention. It’s a dirty trick. Trump will further exploit China topic for his reelection campaign.

April 16, 2020

The Pentagon’s top general, Mark Milley, cast doubt on the lab theory this week. Trump had previously drawn condemnation from Beijing by referring to coronavirus as “the Chinese virus”.

US military chief says ‘weight of evidence’ shows Covid-19 is natural and not from a lab – video

He is expected to announce new guidelines on Thursday aimed at helping states with low virus transmission rates ease their restrictions sooner than 1 May, claiming some states were “champing at the bit”.

“The battle continues but the data suggests that nationwide we have passed the peak on new cases,” he said, without giving details. “Hopefully that will continue, and we will continue to make great progress.

“These encouraging developments have put us in a very strong position to finalise guidelines on states for reopening the country.”

Mike Pence, who heads the coronavirus task force, said: “The American people will be encouraged to know as we stand here today, 24% of the counties of this country have no reported coronavirus cases.”

However, US business leaders have warned Trump that a dramatic increase in testing and availability of protective equipment would be needed before they could restart commercial operations, measures echoed by health experts.

Similarly, the European Union and embattled WHO have urged caution and co-operation before any steps are taken to ease lockdowns.

Spain and Italy – the worst-affected EU nations – have begun allowing some non-essential workers back to work, and France has said it will start easing restrictions from 11 May. Germany will partially reopen schools and some smaller shops early next month. Austria, Denmark and the Czech Republic have all made small-scale moves to lift some measures.

The European commission said loosening restrictions would “unavoidably lead to a corresponding increase in new cases” and said all action should be gradual and coordinated.

Economic pressure to open up national economies is mounting. The IMF said on Thursday Asia’s economic growth would grind to a halt for the first time in 60 years, as the crisis takes an “unprecedented” toll on the service sector and major export destinations.

G20 finance ministers have agreed to suspend poorer countries’ debt payments to help them prepare for increased spending on healthcare. The measure takes effect from 1 May and lasts until the end of the year.

In other developments:

  • South Korea’s left-leaning ruling party won a landslide victory in Wednesday’s general election, partial results showed, after the pandemic turned the political tide in President Moon Jae-in’s favour.

  • The head of the WHO said he regretted Trump’s decision to pull funding for the agency, and that now was the time for the world to unite in its fight against coronavirus.

  • Nearly 700 sailors in the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle’s naval group have tested positive for coronavirus, the armed forces ministry said.

  • Amazon has ordered the temporary closure of all six of its French distribution centres, a day after a French court ruled it was not doing enough to protect its workers.

  • A man whose mother died from coronavirus has filed a police case against the leader of Belarus, accusing President Alexander Lukashenko of failing to take adequate measures to fight the spread of the pandemic, Reuters reports.

  • Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti said Wednesday it was unlikely concerts and sporting events will resume until at least 2021

  • New York City revised its death toll sharply upwards to more than 10,000 people. It added 3,778 people who were not tested but who are nevertheless presumed to have died from Covid-19.