WASHINGTON — The ranks of Americans thrown out of work by the coronavirus ballooned Thursday to more than 20 million in just four weeks, an unprecedented collapse fueling widening protests and propelling U.S. President Donald Trump‘s push to relax the nation’s social distancing guidelines.
Trump planned to announce new recommendations later in the day, despite warnings from business leaders and governors that more testing and protective gear are needed first.
The government said 5.2 million more people applied for unemployment benefits last week, bringing the running total to about 22 million out of a U.S. work force of roughly 159 million — easily the worst stretch of U.S. job losses on record.
Some economists say the unemployment rate could reach 20 per cent in April, the highest since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
While some leaders and citizens have called on government to reopen stores, factories and schools, health authorities and many politicians warned that returning to normal is a distant goal and that easing up on restrictions too soon could allow the virus to come storming back.
The decision of when and how to ease up rests with state and local leaders, who imposed the mandatory lockdowns and other restrictions put in place over the past month.
The outbreak has infected more than 2 million people worldwide and killed more than 137,000, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University, though the true numbers are believed to be much higher. The death toll in the U.S. reached about 31,000, with over 600,000 confirmed infections.
Fallout from the virus spread in ways both predictable and devastating, from police torching an illicit food market in Zimbabwe, to emergency flights carrying foreign farm workers to Britain and Germany, and protests at U.S. state capitols against job losses.
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In France, Amazon suspended operations after a court ruled it wasn’t doing enough to protect its workers in the country. The online retailer has six warehouses in France.
In Britain, a government survey found that a quarter of companies had suspended business. Cargo traffic at Europe’s massive port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands sank 9.3% in the first quarter from the same period a year ago, and its CEO warned of worse to come.
The World Health Organization’s European chief said optimism that the spread of the virus is declining in Italy, Spain and France has been tempered by the knowledge that it is rising or remaining at a high level in Britain, Russia and Turkey.