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Coronavirus Updates: Retail Numbers, WHO Scrambling After Funding Cut


President Trump has accused the World Health Organization of, quote, severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus in deference to China.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Had the WHO done its job to get medical experts into China to objectively assess the situation on the ground and to call out China's lack of transparency, the outbreak could have been contained at its source with very little death.

CHANG: Yesterday, he followed his critique with a consequence. The U.S. will halt funding for the WHO pending a review.


Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is director-general of the WHO. He responded today saying he regretted the president's decision, and he reiterated the WHO's mission.


TEDROS ADHANOM GHEBREYESUS: WHO is getting on with the job. We are continuing to study this virus every moment of every day. We are learning from many countries about what works, and we are sharing that information with the world.

CHANG: And this evening, President Trump announced he is just about ready to start giving some states the green light to reopen their economies. For more on that, we're joined now by NPR health correspondent Rob Stein.

Hey, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Oh, hey there.

CHANG: So the president said tonight that the data he is looking at makes it seem like the U.S. is past the peak. What can you tell us about that assessment?

STEIN: Yeah, so the president asserted that 29 states are doing very well, and the vice president said that about a quarter of U.S. counties have reported no cases and that half of states have fewer than 2,500 cases. And Dr. Deborah Birx, a member of the task force, said that nine states have fewer than a thousand cases. But, you know, some - a lot of experts that I've been in touch with say, you know, they're not really sure that's enough to say that we've really passed the peak. You know, there are plenty of places where cases are still rising and that the - are really areas of concern. In fact, Dr. Birx said that they're keeping a close watch on Rhode Island, for example, which is showing an increase in cases - so just a lot of concern about what might be going on out there and what might happen if we start to try to relax things.

CHANG: And I understand the president said the White House would be issuing a plan tomorrow for how, at least, parts of the country could reopen. What would that plan look like?

STEIN: Yeah, so, you know, again, public health experts that I've been in touch with say that in order to consider reopening, several factors are important. You have to have - you know, cases seem like - they have to be under control, but that's just the beginning. You know, there are a lot of other things you need to have in place, like you need to have enough testing available to spot any new surges of infections quickly, try to snuff them out. And health departments have to be ready to track down people who come in contact with any of these newly infected people to stop any new outbreaks. And hospitals - you know, they have to be ready to handle any big new increases in cases of people getting sick.

CHANG: Right.

STEIN: So there are a lot of things you have to be watching out for before you start to relax things.

CHANG: OK. Well, let's turn now to NPR chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley to talk about the damage that this lockdown is having on the economy. Scott, we got some new numbers today that help us get a sense of the impact. There was a steep drop, for example, in industrial production. What does that tell us?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Ailsa, it tells us, once again, if we needed any reminder, that this is an economic slowdown for the history books. The slump in industrial production in March was the sharpest since 1946. Back then, of course, we abruptly turned off the machinery that had helped to win World War II. Now its civilian factories that have suddenly pulled the plug. Auto production fell 28% last month. Overall, industrial production was down more than 5%. We also learned today that retail sales suffered their biggest one-month drop ever in March, which is not terribly surprising when you think about how many retail stores have closed their doors to slow the spread of the pandemic. We did see an uptick, though, in online sales and, also, in sales at grocery stores as consumers stocked up for who knows how long.

CHANG: Right. Well, OK, so there are some empty shelves, but supermarkets are generally pretty well-stocked. And then tonight, Agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue said that any gaps on the shelves are more about demand and not supply, so that sounds like some parts of the economy are still chugging along - right? - despite this pandemic.

HORSLEY: That's right. Even as the president and his advisers are discussing ways to reopen the economy, it is worth noting that some businesses, including a lot of food producers, never closed their doors. Certainly, auto plants have shuttered, but food and drug producers are busier than ever. And, of course, we've reported some of those auto have been taking on temporary assignments making ventilators. So it's true while millions of people are out of work and millions more are trying to do their work remotely from home or wherever, there are still a lot of people punching time clocks at factories around this country, trying to make the products that keep us clean, keep us fed and, at the same time, trying to keep themselves safe. And it's worth paying attention to those folks because, in many cases, they are setting an example that the rest of us will have to try to follow when the time comes for us to go back to the places where we used to work.

CHANG: All right. I want to bring in diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen now for more on the hold on WHO funding that we've been talking about. You know, the U.S. is the biggest financial supporter of the WHO, so what has been the response, Michele, around the world to the president's decision here?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Well, the WHO says it's assessing how or whether its programs are going to be affected and try to figure out if any others are going to fill the gaps. The U.N. secretary general says this is not the time to stop supporting the WHO in the midst of a pandemic, and that's really the concern I'm hearing from a lot of different countries around the world, particularly in Europe but also Australia, where the prime minister said he sympathizes with Trump's concerns about the WHO but says, don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. You know, even some U.N. critics here in Washington are worried about the timing of this. Brett Schaefer of the Heritage Foundation says the halt in funding plays into China's hands, that China could exploit this and actually cement its influence in the WHO.

CHANG: And what do you know about what the administration - the U.S. administration wants the WHO to do in order to get this funding from the U.S. back?

KELEMEN: Well, that's a big issue. You know, Trump said tonight that the WHO has to make massive changes. Those were his words. But he didn't spell out what exactly that would mean or what would make him decide to release this funding, nor is it really clear yet, Ailsa, how much is actually being held up at the moment. You know, to reform an international organization like the WHO, you really need to rally other U.N. member states. You know, you have to have diplomats laying the groundwork. That doesn't seem to be happening. Just a couple of weeks ago, the State Department was actually highlighting the U.S. aid that it gives to the WHO, saying it shows that the U.S. wants to help the countries around the world. CDC and U.S. health officials have also praised the WHO. They only got access to Wuhan, China, by being a part of the WHO team. And even President Trump, who, today, called the WHO a tool of China, has also praised both China and the WHO in the past few weeks.

CHANG: All right. That is NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. We also heard from chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley and health correspondent Rob Stein.

Thanks to all three of you.

KELEMEN: Sure thing.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

STEIN: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.
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