US President Donald Trump on Wednesday deepened his rift with top medical adviser Anthony Fauci over loosening coronavirus restrictions, saying they “totally” disagree on whether to keep schools closed.
The United States, which has confirmed almost 1.4 million cases, saw a sharp rise in fatalities this week, with 1,894 new deaths reported on Tuesday after daily tolls fell below 1,000.
The US has confirmed over 83,000 virus deaths as of Wednesday evening and leads world in both total infections and fatalities. The global death toll stands at 296,000 with worldwide infections numbering 4.3 million.
The issue of whether students should return to schools and universities in the US in September is emerging as a flashpoint in the standoff between the White House and medical experts over how quickly to reopen the country.
Trump, speaking to reporters at the White House, said he found Fauci’s latest call for a highly cautious reopening “not acceptable.”
“We’re opening our country, people want it open, the schools are going to be open,” Trump said.
Fauci, an internationally respected expert on infectious diseases and a key adviser to Trump throughout the pandemic, testified in Congress on Tuesday that ending the lockdown too quickly could bring “really serious” consequences.
“There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control,” he said.
This was starkly at odds with Trump’s push to put the health crisis behind him and focus on getting the US economy back open. That view is gaining momentum as businesses struggle to stay solvent and millions of Americans register for unemployment relief.
Fauci warned that opening too early could allow the highly contagious and deadly virus to resume spreading and this “could even set you back on the road to trying to get economic recovery.”
Adding to the high stakes is the November election, in which Trump is arguing he will steer the country back to healthy economic times, while his Democratic opponent Joe Biden accuses the Republican of mishandling the pandemic and so worsening the fallout.
So far, Trump has stuck with Fauci, but the doctor is increasingly in the background as the president pushes his reopening message.
“Anthony is a good person, a very good person. I’ve disagreed with him,” Trump said in a segment of an interview on Fox Business Network due to air early Thursday.
“We have to open our country. Now, we want to do it safely, but we also want to do it as quickly as possible. We can’t keep going on like this. You’re having bedlam already in the streets,” he said. “I totally disagree with him on schools.”
Jerome Powell, head of the US Federal Reserve, cautioned Wednesday that lingering shutdowns could cause “lasting” economic damage.
Powell’s warning burst the balloon on Wall Street, analysts said, with stocks sliding on the comments even as he also said the US economy should rebound “substantially” once the outbreak is reined in.
The Fed chief said crisis measures, including spending beyond the nearly $3 trillion already approved in the US, would be crucial to a strong recovery.
The United Nations on Wednesday predicted a global economic contraction of 3.2% this year, the sharpest downturn since the Great Depression in the 1930s.
The UN’s mid-year report released Wednesday said COVID-19 is expected to slash global economic output by nearly $8.5 trillion over the next two years, wiping out nearly all gains of the past four years.
In January, the UN forecast a modest growth of 2.5 percent in 2020.
With some countries scrambling after a fresh surge in cases, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned Wednesday that the virus “may never go away.”
Europe, meanwhile, pushed ahead with plans to gradually reopen for summer tourism, even as fears persist of a second wave of infections in the pandemic that has forced more than half of humanity behind closed doors in recent months.
Russia, now the country with the second-highest number of virus cases, recorded more than 10,000 new infections after authorities this week eased stay-at-home orders.
Fears were also growing of a second wave in China, with the northeastern city of Jilin put in partial lockdown and Wuhan, where the virus was first reported last year, planning to test its entire population after clusters of new cases.
Still, with no vaccine in sight and amid the dire economic data, many countries were trying to navigate through reopening.
Desperate to save millions of tourism jobs, the European Union set out plans for a phased restart of travel this summer, with EU border controls eventually lifted and measures to minimize infections, like wearing masks on shared transport.
In a sign that France might be ready for summer holidays, some beaches reopened on Wednesday — but only for swimming and fishing, while sunbathing remained prohibited.
People in the UK were allowed to leave their homes more freely as figures from Britain on Wednesday showed its economy shrinking by two percent in January-March, its fastest slump since 2008 and with a far worse contraction to come.
Elsewhere, however, cases were surging.
Chile imposed a total lockdown in its capital Santiago after a 60% leap in infections over the past 24 hours.
Brazil — emerging as a new global hotspot despite President Jair Bolsonaro dismissing the pandemic as a “little flu” — registered its highest virus death toll in a single day, with 881 new fatalities.
Health experts have warned of potentially devastating consequences as the virus spreads through the developing world, where healthcare systems are under-funded and isolation is often not possible.
In northern Nigeria, surging tolls have sparked fears the virus is spreading, with hospitals shutting their doors to the sick.
Civil servant Binta Mohammed said she had to watch her husband die from “diabetic complications.”
“The four private hospitals we took him to refused to admit him for fear he had the virus,” she said.
But there were stories of hope amid the gloom, including two centenarians who survived the virus.
In Spain, 113-year-old Maria Branyas fought off the illness during weeks of isolation at a retirement home where several other residents died from the disease.
And in Russia, 100-year-old Pelageya Poyarkova was discharged from a Moscow hospital after her own recovery.
Russian television showed Poyarkova wearing a mask and clutching red roses as she exited in a wheelchair.
“She turned out to be a tough old lady,” the hospital’s acting director Vsevolod Belousov said.