WHO Thanks European Union for Stepping Up

European nations have stepped up to support the World Health Organization after President Trump cut off U.S. funding to it in a political spat.

An exhausted Dr. Giovanni Passeri takes a break during his night shift in the Covid-19 section of the Maggiore Hospital in Parma, Italy. (AP photo/Domenico Stinellis)

GENEVA (AP) — The head of the World Health Organization’s European office is hailing a show of support, including some commitments from around the world, for the U.N. health agency after President Donald Trump announced a halt to funding for it.

Amid an increasingly fraught financial situation for the WHO as it battles the coronavirus outbreak, Dr. Hans Kluge said: “We have been overwhelmed by the support of European countries.”

In an online briefing, the WHO’s regional director for Europe credited the United States for its historic support for the agency. The U.S. is WHO’s top donor, contributing $400 million to $500 million annually in recent years. Trump on Tuesday ordered a halt to U.S. funding pending a review of its alleged “China-centric” response to the Covid-19 outbreak.

“We are looking at the finance situation. Some commitments have come in,” Kluge said, without elaborating. “But for the time, we’re in the midst of the crisis, so what we focus on is to save lives.”

Kluge said some countries, including France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Switzerland, have shown “optimistic signs in terms of declining numbers” in recent weeks, but the “small positive signals in some countries are tempered by sustained or increased levels of incidents in other countries, including the U.K., Turkey, Ukraine, Belarus and the Russian Federation.”

“The storm clouds of this pandemic still hang heavily over the European region,” Kluge said, noting that case numbers are still rising — and have doubled to nearly 1 million over the past 10 days.

He said the WHO’s European region is facing “about 50% of the global burden of Covid-19.”

30,000 Sign Up to Help in German Harvest

BERLIN — Budget airline Eurowings says more than 30,000 people have registered for special flights that will bring them from Romania to Germany to help with the harvest season.

German farms rely heavily on Eastern European laborers for sowing, planting and harvesting crops and there have been concerns that restrictions imposed due to the coronavirus pandemic might stop workers from coming.

Lufthansa’s subsidiary Eurowings said Thursday that it has already flown more than 3,000 workers from Romania to seven German airports and more than 100 additional flights are planned in the coming weeks.

German weekly Der Spiegel reported that a 57-year-old Romanian farmworker who died in southwestern Germany tested positive for Covid-19. Authorities are trying to trace anybody the man, who reportedly arrived in Germany on March 20, had contact with.

China Denies Reports of Virus Lab

BEIJING — China is rebutting allegations that the coronavirus pandemic may have originated in a laboratory near the city of Wuhan where contagious samples were being stored.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian cited the head of the World Health Organization and other unidentified medical experts as saying there was no evidence that transmission began from the lab and there was “no scientific basis” for such claims.

“We always believe that this is a scientific issue and requires the professional assessment of scientists and medical experts,” Zhao told reporters at a daily briefing on Thursday.

“Only with reasonable response can the international community win this fight,” Zhao said. “China will continue to work together with other countries to help and support each other.”

China has also strongly denied claims it delayed reporting on the virus outbreak in Wuhan late last year and underreported case numbers. The virus is believed to have originated with bats and have passed via another animal species to humans at a wildlife and seafood market in Wuhan, although a firm determination has yet to be made.

Allegations about a leak of the virus from the lab have been made in the U.S. media without direct evidence, and President Trump has vowed to suspend funding for the World Health Organization, partly because of what he claims is its pro-China bias.

Viral Video Inflames Serbians

BELGRADE, Serbia — Police in Serbia have opened an investigation into one of their officers beating of a man who has allegedly flouted a curfew imposed to curb the coronavirus spread.

Amateur footage of a police officer repeatedly and violently slapping an unidentified person sitting at the back of a police car parked at a Belgrade street has triggered outrage on social media.

Serbia’s Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic said in a statement Thursday that the footage “which shows inappropriate behavior of a policeman is not the picture of the police we would like to see.” He says he asked for an internal police investigation.

Serbia has introduced some of the toughest lockdown measures in Europe, which include a daily 12-hour curfew and a complete ban on people older than 65 from leaving their homes. Further tightening the restrictions, authorities have imposed an Orthodox Easter weekend curfew starting Friday and ending next Tuesday.

Those who are caught violating those measures could face hefty fines and up to three years in jail.

Serbia, with a population of 7 million, has reported 4,873 Covid-19 infections and 99 deaths.

Netherlands’ Imports Staggered by Virus

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Cargo traffic at the Port of Rotterdam sank by 9.3% in the first quarter to 112.4 million metric tons from the same period a year ago as the coronavirus crisis hammered economies around the world and led to tougher border checks.

The port’s CEO, Allard Castelein, said Thursday, “We are facing unprecedented disruptions,” and he expects the situation to get worse.

Castelein said the impact of falling demand on the port will become clearer in April numbers, and that a “10-20% drop in throughput volume on an annual basis would seem to be very likely.”

He said the impact will depend on how long lockdown measures and other restrictions remain in place and how quickly production and trade recovers.

A falloff in container traffic was felt in only a limited way in the first quarter in the Dutch port because ships from China, where the virus originated, take four to five weeks to reach Rotterdam.

In the container segment, capacity between Asia and Europe is being cut by around 25% due to reduction in demand. “This will also be clearly seen in the port of Rotterdam in the coming quarter,” the port said in a statement.

The main falls in throughput in the first quarter were in coal, crude oil and oil products.

Britain Expected to Extend Nationwide Lockdown

LONDON — The British government will extend a nationwide lockdown for several more weeks, as health officials say the coronavirus outbreak in the country is peaking.

Authorities are expected to announce an extension of restrictions on movement and business activity after a Thursday meeting of the government’s crisis committee, COBRA.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said “it is too early to make a change” to the lockdown introduced on March 23 to slow the spread of the virus.

But as other European countries cautiously ease their measures, U.K. authorities face pressure to explain when and how the country will reopen.

As of Wednesday, 12,868 people had died in U.K. hospitals after testing positive for coronavirus. The figure does not include deaths in nursing homes and other settings.

Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said the U.K. is “probably reaching the peak overall” but that officials are “not yet at the point where we can say confidently and safely this is now past the peak.”

Meanwhile in London, a 99-year-old military veteran completed his quest to walk 100 laps of his garden to raise funds for the National Health Service.

Capt. Tom Moore raised some 12 million pounds ($14 million) to support health care workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

As he reached his goal, he shuffled through a guard of honor from the 1st Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment and said he was glad to be “surrounded by the right sort of people.”

Moore, who uses a walker, sought to walk 100 laps in his 25-meter garden before he turned 100 on April 30. But his simple act captivated the nation in a time of crisis.

Celebrities, fellow veterans, health workers and many other Britons have rallied behind Moore after the World War II veteran appeared on national television.

Erdogan Releases Mafioso, but Not His Critics

ISTANBUL — A mafia boss has been set free as Turkish prisons continue releasing inmates to ease overcrowding in prisons amid the coronavirus pandemic. The new amnesty law will free some 90,000 prisoners but keep government critics behind bars due to Turkey’s broad terror laws.

Ultranationalist Alaattin Cakici, imprisoned for 16 years, was released from an Ankara prison early Thursday, according to tweets by his lawyer. Private DHA and IHA news agencies filmed his convoy leaving the prison. Among his convictions are instigating murder, money laundering and leading an illegal criminal group.

Cakici is close to nationalist politician Devlet Bahceli, who is allied with the Turkish government and its dictatorial president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Dozens of journalists, activists, opposition politicians and others will remain incarcerated because many of them have been imprisoned on terror-related charges. Opposition parties and rights groups have criticized the new law, which was published on the Official Gazette Wednesday.

EU Will Frontload Its 7-Year Budget to Fight Pandemic

BRUSSELS — A top European Union official says the 27-nation bloc will reshape its next trillion-dollar budget to focus on tackling the coronavirus and funnel much of the spending into the first few years.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told EU lawmakers Thursday that the new seven-year budget set to enter force in January “will be the mothership of our recovery.”

Von der Leyen, whose institution is drafting a new spending package, said the budget “must be different to what we have imagined” given the way the virus is ravaging Europe’s economies.

She said, “We will use the power of the whole European budget to leverage the huge amount of investment we need to rebuild the single market after corona. We will frontload it, so we can power that investment in those crucial first years of recovery.”

Talks on the budget, which accounts for just over 1% of the gross national income of member countries, have been blocked for almost a year.

Some countries are reluctant to pay more to plug the roughly $81 billion hole left by Britain’s departure from the EU.

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Courthouse News contributed to this report.

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