Oil prices crashed into negative territory Monday after coronavirus lockdowns around the globe shrivelled demand, as US demonstrators once again took to the streets in several state capitals demanding the reopening of the world’s number one economy.
The question of when to lift stay-at-home orders — and thus help mitigate the devastating economic effects of the global virus crisis — has been at the forefront for many countries.
Germany and other parts of Europe took tentative steps to ease lockdown measures as coronavirus death rates fell in some nations, but in the United States, some believe governors are not moving quickly enough.
The unprecedented collapse of oil prices, which traded in negative territory for the first time ever, is sure to fuel calls for a quicker unshackling of the global economy.
With billions of people forced to stay home to curb the spread of the deadly virus, and top producers Saudi Arabia and Russia in a price war, an oil glut pushed prices for US benchmark West Texas Intermediate for May delivery down to -$37.63 per barrel.
That prompted more selling on Wall Street, and the Dow closed down 2.4 percent.
Thousands in the United States who are concerned about their economic bottom line have been protesting across the country for days, and on Monday, the focal point was Pennsylvania and its capital Harrisburg.
There, hundreds of people — many not wearing face masks — argued that government regulations intended to halt the spread of COVID-19 limit individual freedoms and are hurting the economy.
“Our new normal does not mean we will sacrifice our freedoms for the safety of our country,” state lawmaker Aaron Bernstine said to chants of “USA! USA!”
President Donald Trump has cheered on the protests, even as health officials warn that a too-rapid reopening could risk a resurgence of deadly outbreaks.
The highly contagious virus has killed more than 41,000 people in the United States, the country hardest hit by the disease.
Trump has been critical of the World Health Organization for its handling of the pandemic, but the Geneva-based agency’s chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus insisted the UN body had been warning about the dangers of the virus “from day one.”
– Far from ‘out of the woods’ –
In Europe, Spain recorded its lowest death toll in weeks Monday, Britain saw its lowest in a fortnight and Italy recorded its first drop in the number of cases since its first infection was confirmed in February.
The encouraging news came as tight restrictions in place for weeks were lifted in parts of the continent — some shops reopened in Germany and Denmark, and parents dropped their children off at nurseries in Norway.
Germany, which has been hailed for keeping fatalities low despite a significant number of cases, allowed smaller shops to reopen in some regions from Monday.
Larger stores and those in major German cities will open later as part of an attempted phased return to a more normal existence that will also see some students go back to school from May 4.
Hopes were tempered by fears of new waves of infections, warnings that life will not be back to normal for many months and deep concern over the economy.
Nevertheless, even the smallest return to normality was welcome.
In the German city of Leipzig, fashion store owner Manuela Fischer said she was “incredibly happy” to be welcoming shoppers again.
Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Germans to stay disciplined, warning: “We stand at the beginning of the pandemic and are still a long way from being out of the woods.”
Denmark also reopened some small businesses, including hair salons, massage and tattoo parlors, dental practices and driving schools, while Italy allowed bookshops to open their doors.
In Norway, Silje Skifjell dropped off her boys Isaak and Kasper at a nursery in the capital Oslo.
“I almost cried, he was so happy to see his friends,” she said of four-year-old Isaak, her eldest.
In Australia, authorities in Sydney partially reopened three beaches while New Zealand announced it will ease a nationwide lockdown next week, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern saying: “We have stopped a wave of devastation.”
– WHO, China reject criticism –
Trump, under fire for his response to the crisis as he seeks re-election in November, has lashed out at the WHO for its early handling of the outbreak and cut US funding for the global health body.
Responding Monday during a virtual briefing in Geneva, Ghebreyesus said the agency had dutifully sounded the alarm.
“We have been warning from day one that this is a devil that everyone should fight,” he said, adding that “there is nothing hidden from the US” about the pandemic.
China also hit back at US criticism, which has seen some in Washington push conspiracy theories claiming the virus could have originated at a maximum-security virology lab in its central city of Wuhan.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang rejected the accusations, saying they disrespected “the Chinese people’s tremendous efforts and sacrifices” in fighting the contagion.
More than 2.4 million coronavirus cases have been confirmed globally, and the death toll has risen to 167,600, with nearly two-thirds of the victims in Europe, according to an AFP tally.
In France, the death toll climbed past 20,000. It is now the fourth country at that level, along with the United States, Italy and Spain.
But there was also good news: France’s top health official Jerome Salomon told reporters that each infected person was infecting on average fewer than one other person.
“This is how we will manage to put the brakes on the epidemic,” he said.