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Australia extends jobs support as new COVID-19 outbreaks threaten economy –



By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia will spend A$16.8 billion ($11.8 billion) to extend its wage subsidies for businesses hit by the coronavirus pandemic, as a surge in new infections in the country’s southeast threatens to keep the economy in recession.

The six-month extension of the programme allays fears a hard end to the current A$70 billion scheme, originally scheduled for Sept. 30, would prolong Australia’s first recession in three decades.

However, subsidies will be reduced under the new programme, which runs through to March 31 and is expected to cover about 1 million workers, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative government seeks to wean the economy of fiscal support.

“It has to scale down and work ourselves off these supports because they’re not enduring, they cannot be permanent, they were never designed to be permanent,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra on Tuesday.

Australia launched its support programme in March with fortnightly payments for workers from affected businesses of A$1,500 ($1,049). The scheme covered all workers, including those who only worked casual shifts.

Under scaled back subsisidies, recipients will receive A$1,200 a fortnight, while those who work less than 20 hours a week will receive A$700 every two weeks. From Jan. 1, payments will fall to A$1,000 and A$650 a fortnight, respectively.

The wage supplements have helped 3.5 million Australians and are widely credited with propping up the ailing economy after widespread social distancing restrictions paralysed businesses.

However, Morrison said changes were needed to ensure enough support to the economy without overpaying casual workers.

Morrison said his government will also trim unemployment benefits. Australia in March said it would increase unemployment benefits by A$550 a fortnight until September 30, but Morrison said this will be cut by more than 50%.


The extension of the fiscal stimulus eases fears that Australia would suffer a hard economic landing after September with unemployment already at a 22-year high.

Australia’s central bank said late last month the economy will need “considerable” support for some time, despite moves by states and territories to reopen their economies.

“The risk of a hard landing for the economy has dramatically reduced,” said Joshua Williamson, head of Economics Australia and New Zealand, Citibank. “By extending the assistance schemes, the government has reduced the likelihood of a policy driven slump in economic activity in Q4.”

But hopes for a quick recovery have been dashed as Australia struggles to contain new COVID-19 outbreaks.

Authorities in the southeastern state of Victoria, whose capital Melbourne is in partial lockdown amid a new outbreak, reported 374 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, up from 275 cases detected on Monday.

The figures dent hopes Victoria will see a sustained slowdown in COVID-19 cases two weeks after nearly 5 million were told to stay home except for essential reasons.

Australia has recorded about 12,000 coronavirus cases. The death toll rose to 126 after a woman in her 100s, a woman in her 90s and a woman in her 80s died from the virus.

Less than a month ago, Australia was widely heralded as a global leader in combating COVID-19 but quarantine lapses in Victoria triggered a flare-up in infections in June.

($1 = 1.4229 Australian dollars)

(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Sam Holmes)

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Lebanon's economy minister blames Beirut blast on 'incompetence' and 'stupid' decisions –



Raoul Nehme says he has no doubt that criminal negligence within successive Lebanese governments led to the devastating explosion that killed at least 135 people in Beirut on Tuesday.

More than 4,000 people were injured and huge swaths of the Lebanese capital city were destroyed in when 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate in the city’s port area exploded.

The materials had been sitting in a Beirut warehouse since they were confiscated from a cargo ship in 2014, despite repeated warnings from customs officials that it was dangerous to leave them there. The government said Wednesday it is putting an unspecified number of Beirut port officials under house arrest pending an investigation.

Even before the blast, the country had been plunged deep into an economic crisis, with massive job losses, growing debt and shortages of electricity, water, and critical supplies — all exacerbated by political corruption and unrest, fighting along the southern border, and most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic

Nehme, a former banker, was appointed Lebanon’s economy minister in January by new Prime Minister Hassan Diab in an effort to meet protesters’ demands for a cabinet made up of people with specialized expertise, rather than partisan ties. 

He spoke to As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner about how his country plans to recover from the explosion. Here is part of their conversation. 

You just visited the site of this explosion. What was that like?

It was very sad because we have a number of casualties within our employees — missing people and dead people.

The site of destruction is really an apocalypse. It is something you cannot imagine. Everything is flattened in the place where the explosion happened. It sank into the sea. The silos are half felled, half of them unfortunately on some of our employees. And they are practically destroyed. I don’t think we will be able to recover any part of it, which is a big problem for Lebanon.

Warehouses burned down, destroyed entirely. Everything is destroyed. It’s absolutely terrible. 

Everywhere in Beirut, we have major damage. Glass falling, doors broken, flying through the apartments.

Our ministry, which is in the city, is entirely destroyed. Nothing is left. Everything is broken. [In] my office … two windows fell on the place where I sit. Luckily, I was not there.

[Earlier today I was] in a meeting with importers and then supermarkets to discuss with them what they needed to make sure that we ensured supply. And we had to do a meeting outside of Beirut because we have no office any more in Beirut left that could be used.

And even five, six kilometres out of Beirut, a lot of glass is broken. In Beirut, stores are damaged badly and products in the stores [are] damaged badly as well.

So for the economy, it is absolutely terrible. We already had a major problem and now we have these huge losses. We cannot assess how much the losses are, but they are certainly in billions of dollars, and we just don’t have the means to resolve these issues. We have to count on international aid, heavily.

Destroyed buildings are visible a day after a massive explosion occurred at the port in Beirut. (Daniel Carde/Getty Images)

Minister, you describe this as an apocalypse. And yet the government knew that this explosive material was sitting in this port for six years in Beirut. How much responsibility does the government bear for what happened?

Personally, I think that there is a huge responsibility for the successive governments. And this is why we established that investigation committee. And we will go to the end. Whoever was responsible since 2014 until now will have to be brought to court. And really, sanctions should be very hard.

What happened is just unacceptable. And we will go to the end of this investigation. Whoever is responsible, we will go after him, whoever it is, wherever he is.

You say there will be an investigation, but critics say this goes beyond just individuals, that this shows the negligence, incompetence and corruption that runs deep in Lebanon’s political class. Would you agree with that?

Yes, we have a lot of corruption. But in this case, it’s not corruption that played a role. It is certainly incompetence. It is certainly, as well, people not understanding and assessing the risks.

It is bureaucracy and, frankly, in my opinion, stupid behaviours and decisions.

A woman looks out of the collapsed facade of an apartment, damaged by the explosion. ( Marwan Tahtah/Getty Images)

But, Minister, there were warnings that came from port officials over the years. Six formal letters to the country’s judiciary asking that this dangerous material be removed and, in fact, proposing ways to deal with it. How does this not go beyond just bureaucratic incompetence to criminal negligence?

What happened is criminal negligence. Absolutely. I fully agree with you. And it is criminal negligence from a lot of people.

But I don’t want to go beyond the investigation and say what my personal opinion is. The investigation will happen, and everyone that has a responsibility in it, everyone will have to be punished, will have to bear the consequences of what we lived through.

As for the economic consequences, that is your responsibility directly. How can you recover from this when … Lebanon was already dealing with virtual economic collapse, and now this?

Well, even before this, I was very clear, stating that without [the International Monetary Fund], we cannot get out of this problem and out of these issues. 

IMF brings two things to the table. It brings financing, and [it] brings discipline. And that discipline brings in other assistance from the World Bank, from other countries, from [the International Financing Corporation] and so on.

So this is really what is important and what leads us to go to this program. But that was before. And now we have added this really cataclysm, as I told you. We just can’t handle it. We don’t have the means to handle it.

I’ll give you just one example. Where are we going to bring all the glass to replace windows? We just don’t have that. Where are we going to bring the aluminum? We don’t have that. All the doors, all the knobs, all the warehouses that were burned down.

We lived through a small Hiroshima…. It is really something that is just absolutely incredible.

So, what do you want me to say? It’s appalling. All day we have been working on emergency plans. And I have to say that we are very lucky that a lot of countries have been proposing that assistance, and [French] President [Emmanuel] Macron is coming tomorrow to Lebanon to prove once again that France is with us.

You talk about all the supplies that you will need to rebuild. Supplies will be forthcoming, as you say. But how do you convince the international community that you have the right government and the right bureaucracy and the credibility to do what needs to be done?

There is only one way to do it. Only one way and not two way. Not 19 ways. One way. We have to do the reforms that have been requested by the international community for over 20 years.

You are not a politician. You were brought in as a technocrat to help deal with the economic crisis. Do you personally believe that there is the political will to change the way Lebanon is governed?

I believe that the politicians will all have woken up to the problem enough to understand that we have now to stand united and work hand-in-hand to resolve all these problems. Because this is the solution. We have to stop bickering. Political bickering doesn’t take us anywhere. It takes us to a bigger problem.

Debris covers a street in Beirut after Tuesday’s massive explosion. (Marwan Tahtah/Getty Images)

You had hope when you took this job six months ago. How much hope do you have now, given everything that Lebanon has to face?

Look, with this new crisis, it’s getting more difficult. But I am always hopeful. My nature is to fight and never stop fighting, and to succeed. 

So I am hopeful. And, always, there is light at the end of the tunnel. It is going to be difficult. It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be painful. Very painful. But we will succeed.

What do you say to so many people in Lebanon? To the many Canadians who have family in Lebanon who feel so hopeless right now?

We need your help.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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Sweden's economy less hard-hit by coronavirus – BBC News



Sweden, which avoided a lockdown during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, saw its economy shrink 8.6% in the April-to-June period from the previous three months.

The flash estimate from the Swedish statistics office indicated that the country fared better than other EU nations which took stricter measures.

However, it was still the largest quarterly fall for at least 40 years.

The European Union saw a contraction of 11.9% for the same period.

Individual nations did even worse, with Spain seeing an 18.5% contraction, while the French and Italian economies shrank by 13.8% and 12.4% respectively.

“The downturn in GDP is the largest for a single quarter for the period of 1980 and forward,” Statistics Sweden said.

“It is, as expected, a dramatic downturn. But compared to other countries, it is considerably better, for instance if you compare to southern Europe,” said Nordea bank chief analyst Torbjorn Isaksson.

Sweden has largely relied on voluntary social distancing guidelines since the start of the pandemic, including working from home where possible and avoiding public transport.

Although businesses have largely continued to operate in Sweden, the country’s economy is highly dependent on exports, which were hit by lack of demand from abroad during the pandemic.

Despite the contraction, Sweden is not yet in recession, since the first quarter saw growth of 0.1%.

An economy is generally deemed to be in recession if it contracts for two consecutive quarters.

Various forecasts predict the Swedish economy will still shrink by about 5% this year.

That is less than other countries hit hard by Covid-19, such as Italy, Spain and the UK, but still similar to the rest of Scandinavia.

Sweden’s unemployment rate of 9% remains the highest in the Nordics, up from 7.1% in March.

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'$500 for everyone': Belarus leader's Soviet-style economy wears thin for some voters –



By Andrei Makhovsky

MINSK (Reuters) – Under President Alexander Lukashenko, the average monthly wage in Belarus has risen in dollar terms to $500 from $50 in 1999. For voters, there’s just one problem: it hit $500 in 2010, and has been stuck there ever since.

As Lukashenko, a 65-year-old former collective farm manager with a fondness for a Soviet-style command economy, seeks re-election on Sunday after 26 years in power, his economic record is being found wanting by some voters.

“My daughter tells me all the time: I love my country, I want to live in my country,” said Dmitry, a 53-year-old Minsk resident protesting against Lukashenko last week.

“But with what is happening here, there are no prospects for young people. No future,” he said, saying his daughter lived in the Czech Republic and had no plans to return.

He declined to give his surname for fear of reprisals in a country where little dissent is allowed.

Once cast by Washington as “Europe’s last dictator”, Lukashenko controls the levers of power in the strategically important country between East and West through which Russia sends its oil. He is expected to be re-elected.

But he faces protests by opposition supporters rallying around his main opponent, a former English teacher whose husband was jailed and cannot run himself.

Lukashenko is also facing criticism over his human rights record and dismissal of COVID-19 as “a psychosis”.

His once popular promise of “$500 for everyone” was a reflection of rising prosperity in the 2000s, but has become the butt of internet memes.

“People are really sick of it, people want change, people want some kind of development,” said Vadim Iossub, a senior analyst at financial company Alpari Eurasia.

Fraying ties between Belarus and Russia have prompted Moscow to scale back subsidised energy supplies that previously propped up Lukashenko’s rule, creating a $700-million budget hole as the coronavirus pandemic tipped the economy into recession.

Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians have moved abroad in recent years. Lukashenko said on Tuesday the population had fallen by 8%.


Around 70% of the economy and two-thirds of the workforce have remained in state hands in the former Soviet republic.

While the government has cut red tape for private entrepreneurs, whom Lukashenko once derided as “leeches”, the economy is dominated by public companies receiving government loans and subsidies.

The model has been underpinned by cheap Russian gas and crude oil, processed in Belarusian refineries and exported.

Addressing the nation on Tuesday, Lukashenko promised to double wages within five years and resisted calls for rapid change, casting Belarus as an island of stability at a time of global turmoil.

Lukashenko said he expected the economy to grow by 3-4% in coming years. He said his statist model should deliver that if production and exports are ramped up and Belarus starts to manufacture $4 billion of goods it currently imports annually.

“For the entire term of my presidency, I have not found an answer to the question: why are state-owned enterprises such an eyesore to everyone?” he said.

Belarus grew by an average of less than 1% annually between 2010-2020. In 2012, the purchasing power of Belarusian wages was 73 percent of that in neighbouring Poland. By 2020, it had dropped to 60 percent, according to official data.

Valery Tsepkalo, an election opponent who fled abroad fearing arrest, told Reuters Lukashenko had broken an “unwritten agreement” with voters to deliver prosperity in exchange for political obedience.

“He deprived Belarus people of political freedoms and he also deprives Belarus people of economic growth. This is one of the reasons society started to protest,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber in Moscow; writing by Matthias Williams, Editing by Andrew Osborn and Timothy Heritage)

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