China scrambles to plug border gaps as thousands flood home

BEIJING/SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Regions along China’s porous borders with southeast Asia are working hard to improve surveillance and curb illegal immigration, authorities said, as thousands flood into a country seen as a safe haven in the global war against the coronavirus pandemic.

As the number of confirmed cases across the globe exceeds one million, China says its lockdowns of Wuhan and the province of Hubei, where the disease originated late last year, have brought domestic sources of transmission under control. Authorities have now turned their attention to potential infections from overseas.

But while they have imposed tough new quarantine measures on all passengers flying into China’s airports, they are struggling to handle an influx of people crossing the poorly policed frontiers of Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.

Premier Li Keqiang’s special government taskforce handling the COVID-19 outbreak decided on Thursday to strengthen border controls and impose centralised quarantine on travellers who enter the country via highways.

“China’s southwest land border with South East Asian countries is too long and porous to be enforced properly,” said Zhang Mingliang, professor of South East Asia studies at Guangzhou Jinan University.

These borders have often proved vulnerable to drug smugglers and human traffickers, and now local governments are facing the additional challenge of having to cope with thousands of people fleeing the coronavirus.

“Before the outbreak, Vietnamese people have scaled barbed wire fences to cross into Guangxi for work,” Zhang added, adding that it wouldn’t be a surprise if more people were now entering the country, either because of the virus or for other purposes.

Last month, 13 foreign citizens were reported to have illegally entered the city of Baise in the region of Guangxi, which shares a border with Vietnam. They were immediately repatriated, and authorities have now set up volunteer checkpoints to try to stop further illegal entry.

NO SIGNS OF STRICTER CHECKS

Although China has promised tougher controls, residents on the Myanmar side of the border said workers and businessmen continue to make routine journeys into the neighbouring Chinese province of Yunnan.

“People cross to China every day,” a resident of Namkham township, in Myanmar’s northern Shan state, separated from China by the narrow Shweli river, told Reuters. “Almost all of them are Myanmar nationals who are manual labourers on banana plantations, maize plantations and other plantations.”

A Reuters reporter saw no signs of tight surveillance on either side of the river at two crossing points.

However, many people now entering China are Chinese nationals doing so legally, with tougher border and airport controls spooking thousands of Chinese farmers, traders and construction workers into returning home.

Local authorities have promised to strictly apply quarantine rules on those who enter.

Yunnan province, which shares a rugged and sometimes lawless 4,000-km border with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, has become the “front line” of efforts to prevent infections entering the country from overseas, senior provincial officials said at a meeting on March 31.

In Mengla, a county in Yunnan on the border with Myanmar, traffic flows have surged since March 28 as people return to China by road following the cancellation of flights as well as toughened airport controls, residents said.

Authorities have commandeered 46 hotels to quarantine incoming travellers, with as many as 3,589 incoming travellers isolated in the county by March 28.

Xishuangbanna prefecture, which runs Mengla and forms a large part of China’s border with Myanmar, has also set up a special task force to build a “defensive line” preventing illegal border entry, especially for citizens from Myanmar and Laos, it said in a notice on Thursday.

“To be honest we were not that panicked during the domestic outbreak given our remote location,” said a Xishuangbanna resident. “But now we are frightened as we suddenly stand on the front line of the battlefield.”

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Money Hacks Podcast: Basics of loyalty programmes

TAP/CLICK TO LISTEN: Money Hacks Ep 65: Basics of loyalty programmes

9:06 mins

Synopsis: In this fortnightly podcast series on Mondays, The Business Times breaks down actionable financial tips.

In this week’s episode, we talk about loyalty programmes, what they are and how they can work for the investor. Adam Reynolds, chief executive, Asia-Pacific, Saxo Markets, tells us more about Saxo Rewards.

1. Should investors even care about loyalty programmes? (1:09)

2. How common are loyalty programmes in the online brokerage industry? (1:56)

3. Does Saxo expect other brokerages to launch competing loyalty programmes? (6:07)

4. Don’t just trade for the sake of racking points up (7:03)

Produced by: Chris Lim and Lee Kim Siang

Edited by: Adam Azlee

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Feedback to: [email protected]

Do note: Any financial or investment information in this podcast is for use in Singapore only and is intended to be for your general information. Any particular investment or decision should only be made after consulting with a fully qualified financial adviser.

Thank you for your support! ST & BT Podcasts picked up a silver medal for Best Digital Project to engage younger and/or millennial audiences at 2019 Asian Digital Media Awards by Wan-Ifra: https://str.sg/Jw5T 

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Singapore closes workplaces, schools as coronavirus cases jump

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Singapore will close schools and most workplaces for a month as part of stricter measures to curb a recent jump in coronavirus infections, it said on Friday, an announcement that sent locals racing to supermarkets to stock up on staples.

The city-state has won international praise for its two-month long battle against a virus that has infected over a million people globally, avoiding lockdown measures increasingly common around the world.

But authorities said record jumps in new infections this week, taking its total to 1,114 cases, pointed to the need for a tougher approach.

Disease experts have said breaches in Singapore’s lauded virus defence have underlined the challenge of containing the pandemic around the world.

“We have decided that instead of tightening incrementally over the next few weeks, we should make a decisive move now, to pre-empt escalating infections,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a speech.

Long queues promptly formed outside shops across the island and residents cleared shelves despite authorities saying supermarkets will remain open.

“I rushed here an hour ago because my friends sent me a message about a lockdown. Even now in the supermarket, there are empty shelves,” said Kim Melissa Hwang, 57, adding she had also just lost her job at a restaurant.

“If there is no job and no food…it’s very sad.”

Related Coverage

  • Singapore reports 65 new coronavirus cases, taking total to 1,114

“CIRCUIT BREAKER”

PM Lee said the government would next week announce more support for households and businesses to tide them over the next month.

The wealthy finance and shipping hub is bracing for the worst recession in its 55-year history due to the pandemic, and the government has already announced virus relief measures this year equal to 11% of its GDP.

Under the new measures – which authorities have called a “circuit breaker” – markets and supermarkets, clinics, hospitals, utilities, transport and key banking services will remain open. Restaurants will be only allowed to do takeaway or delivery, while museums, casinos and gyms will be closed.

The new measures will be in place from April 7 until May 4, while schools will move to full home-based learning from April 8. The measures could be extended beyond a month if the situation did not improve, authorities said.

Lee urged everyone to stay at home as much as possible and to avoid socialising with others beyond their own household.

“Go out only to do essential things,” he said.

Authorities held back from raising the national virus risk assessment to red, the top level, saying the spread could still be controlled through other preventative measures such as contact tracing and quarantine.

But the government said it would no longer discourage people from wearing masks in a reversal of its previous advice as public health officials globally rethink their stance due to the growing possibility of undetected coronavirus cases.

“We also now have evidence that an infected person can show no symptoms, and yet still pass on the virus to others,” Lee said.

The government will distribute reusable masks to all households from Sunday, while conserving surgical masks for healthcare workers.

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Pakistan re-arrests four men acquitted in Daniel Pearl murder case

KARACHI (Reuters) – Pakistani authorities ordered on Friday four men, including a British militant, convicted of the 2002 murder of U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl, to be detained for three months despite a lower court’s ruling to overturn their convictions.

The High Court in the province of Sindh on Thursday acquitted the four, including Briton Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who was sentenced to death in 2002 for masterminding Pearl’s murder. The other three were sentenced to life.

Wall Street Journal reporter Pearl, 38, was investigating Islamist militants in the city of Karachi, the capital of Sindh, after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States when he was kidnapped in January 2002. He was beheaded weeks later.

The Sindh provincial government’s Home Department issued the order to arrest and detain the four before they were released from prison.

“The government of Sindh has sufficient reason that Ahmed Omar Sheikh and Fahad Nasim Ahmed, Syed Salman Saqib, Sheikh Muhammad Adil be arrested and detained for a period of three months from the date of arrest (April 2, 2020),” a top official of the department said in the order, seen by Reuters.

The official cited concern that the released men may act “against the interest of the country”.

The law to keep them in detention is one that the government has often used to keep high-profile suspects, particularly militants, in custody after being unable to successfully prosecute them in court.

The United States denounced Thursday’s court acquittal of the four, with the top U.S. diplomat for South Asia writing on Twitter that it was “an affront to victims of terrorism everywhere.”

SCRUTINY

Pakistan joined the U.S.-led “war on terrorism” after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States but it has been dogged by suspicion that it has for years secretly backed some militant factions as tools in its decades-old confrontation with rival India.

Pakistan denies that but it has been under the close scrutiny of a global watchdog on terror financing, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), with its frequent inability to prosecute terrorism cases a particular concern of the agency.

The re-arrest of the four gives the government time to put together a legal appeal against their acquittal.

A senior Pakistani government law officer told Reuters that the state would appeal against the Sindh High Court’s Thursday ruling, which the United States welcomed.

“We welcome Pakistan’s decision to appeal the verdict,” acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells said.

Sheikh was born in Britain and enjoyed a privileged upbringing and studied at the London School of Economics.

He was arrested in India for his involvement in the kidnapping of Western tourists in 1994 as part of his support for Muslim separatists battling Indian security forces in the disputed Kashmir region.

He was one of three men released from an Indian prison after militants hijacked an Indian airliner in late 1999 and flew it to Afghanistan, where the then-ruling Taliban government helped negotiate an exchange.

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Coronavirus: Health Secretary Matt Hancock says ‘very unpleasant’ COVID-19 saw him lose half a stone

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has revealed he lost half a stone while suffering from coronavirus.

The cabinet minister tested positive for COVID-19 last week and entered self-isolation.

After a seven-day period, he left self-isolation on Thursday and announced a five-point action plan to achieve a “significant” increase in coronavirus testing.

It followed criticism of the government’s approach to testing and the UK’s low level of testing in comparison to countries such as Germany and South Korea.

Speaking to Sky News on Friday, Mr Hancock said he had been working “every day” with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who also contracted coronavirus, during his self-isolation.

Describing the effects of the disease, the health secretary said: “It is rough, especially when you are on the downhill part of it – it’s very worrying because we’ve all seen how serious it can get.

“I had a couple of days when it was really very unpleasant and I’ve lost about half a stone.

“But, thankfully, I’ve recovered and I’m now feeling fine and it’s very good to be back at work.

“I’ve talked to the prime minister all the way through this, he’s working very hard as much as he can from home, obviously, in Downing Street.

“I’ve worked with him every day all the way through and he’s doing what’s needed in taking the decisions and we all wish him a very speedy recovery.”

Mr Hancock’s plan to increase testing to 100,000 tests per day in England by the end of this month includes the use of universities and private businesses to establish more swab testing.

He admitted the target to “ramp up” the amount of testing was “a big task, a big ask”, with the current level of testing around 10,000 tests per day.

But the health secretary pointed to the building of a new make-shift NHS hospital in east London as an example of the government being able to achieve action in the face of the coronavirus crisis.

“We’re opening the NHS Nightingale today, we managed to build that in nine days,” he said.

“On ventilators we asked companies that haven’t ever made a ventilator before to step up to the plate and they’re delivering ventilators.

“And now we need to do the same on testing.”

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European stocks sink as pandemic hits business, oil prices grind higher

LONDON (Reuters) – European stock markets sank on Friday, erasing meagre gains for the week, as more companies flagged a hit to business from the coronavirus pandemic while oil prices extended their previous day’s gains on hopes of a global supply cut.

With virus-fighting lockdowns raising the risk of a prolonged global downturn, investors continued to seek the safety of the U.S. dollar and government bonds, pushing U.S. Treasury yields near their lowest in three weeks.

With over a million people infected worldwide, there were more signs the pandemic would take a massive toll on economic growth. Morgan Stanley said the U.S. economy will shrink 5.5% in 2020, the steepest drop since 1946, with a huge 38% contraction predicted for the second quarter.

The pan-European STOXX 600 index was down 0.4% by 0749 GMT, taking MSCI’S All Country World Index down 0.3%.

A number of firms flagged a hit to business from the pandemic, foreshadowing a deeper earnings recession ahead of the reporting season.

MSCI’s Asia-Pacific index outside Japan dipped 0.6% while Japan’s Nikkei erased earlier gains to end flat.

U.S. stock futures sank nearly 1 percent.

Brent crude futures gained 3.64% to $31.03, extending Thursday’s record 24.7% surge , while U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude fell 0.83% to $25.11. [O/R]

Trump said on Thursday he had spoken to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and expects Riyadh and Moscow to cut oil output by as much as 10 million to 15 million barrels, as the two countries signalled willingness to make a deal.

Saudi Arabia said it would call an emergency meeting of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, state media reported.

The amount cited by Trump would represent an unprecedented cut equal to 10% to 15% of global supply, in output per day terms, a common unit of measurement.

However, Trump provided few details, an omission some analysts said was likely intentional, and which they said explained a pullback in prices in the Asian session.

“The reason the price came back down is that these figures are so unbelievable as to make one wonder whether the person saying them understood what he was talking about,” said Marshall Gittler, head of investment research at BDSwiss Group.

In early March, talks over production cuts between the two countries collapsed, leading them to start a price war that pushed oil prices to the lowest levels in nearly two decades.

SAFE ASSETS IN DEMAND

Investors sought the safety of government bonds. Benchmark U.S. 10-year notes last yielded 0.597%, near a three-week low of 0.563% touched on Thursday.

More evidence of the damage from widespread stay-at-home orders to contain the spread of coronavirus emerged in the United States, with an unprecedented number of workers – 6.6 million – filing jobless claims.

Projections released by the U.S. Congressional Budget Office showed gross domestic product would decline by more than 7% in the second quarter as the health crisis takes hold.

The pandemic has claimed more than 52,000 deaths as it further exploded in the United States and the death toll climbed in Spain and Italy, according to a Reuters tally.

Highly rated U.S. corporate bond issuers raised a record $110.502 billion this week, according to Refinitiv IFR data, as firms borrowed cash in fear the coronavirus crisis may soon limit their access to capital markets.

In the currency market, the dollar maintained its firmness against a basket of currencies as investors and companies continued to hoard the world’s most liquid currency.

The dollar index has risen 1.97% so far this week, even as extreme tightness for greenback since last month eased.

The euro dipped 0.5% to $1.0798 set for five straight days of losses, and at its lowest level since March 25. The yen also stepped back to 108.11 per dollar from Wednesday’s two-week high of 106.925.

Gold prices extended the previous day’s gains on the dire U.S. jobless claims figures, intensifying fears of the coming economic slowdown and driving investors toward the safe-haven metal.

Spot gold rose 0.1% to $1,613.78 per ounce after a 1.28% rise on Thursday.

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U.S. unemployment claims hit record 6.6 million going into April amid coronavirus

WASHINGTON — More than 6.6 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week, far exceeding a record high set just a week prior, a sign that layoffs are accelerating in the midst of the coronavirus.

Initial claims for unemployment insurance in Colorado followed suit. The 61,583 claims filed last week more than tripled the previous one-week record of 19,745, a mark set during the week that ended March 21, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. Thousands more have filed applications for benefits but were not approved for initial claims.

The two-week total of 81,328 claims more than doubles Colorado’s unemployment rate from February. At the end of that month, roughly 80,300 people in the state had been approved for benefits, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, setting the statewide unemployment rate of 2.5%.

With layoff notices pouring in and adjustments made to state systems to allow more people to file for unemployment online or by phone, the state is moving into territory it hasn’t seen in years. The last time Colorado’s unemployment rate was over 5% was in 2014, federal data shows.

The job cuts are mounting against the backdrop of economies in the United States and abroad that have almost certainly sunk into a severe recession as businesses close across the world.

The national figure for last week is much higher than the previous record of 3.3 million reported for the previous week. The surging layoffs have led many economists to envision as many as 20 million lost jobs across the country by the end of April. The unemployment rate could spike to as high as 15% this month, above the previous record of 10.8% set during a deep recession in 1982.

Many employers are slashing their payrolls to try to stay afloat because their revenue has collapsed, especially at restaurants, hotels, gyms, movie theaters and other venues that depend on face-to-face interaction. Auto sales have sunk, and factories have closed.

Stay-at-home orders, imposed by most U.S. states, have intensified pressure on businesses, most of which face rent, loans and other bills that must be paid.

After Congress passed a $2.2 trillion relief package to soften the economic blow of the pandemic last week, unemployment benefits for many across the country and in Colorado were expanded. The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment created a document breaking down how individuals’ varying employment circumstances dictate the support they may receive. That document is shared below.

 

Updated April 2, 2020, at 9:40 a.m. This story was updated with unemployment claims numbers from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. The state’s numbers were higher than those shared earlier Thursday by the U.S. Department of Labor.

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British supermarket Sainsbury's to remove most customer purchasing limits

LONDON (Reuters) – British supermarket group Sainsbury’s (SBRY.L) said on Friday it would start to remove the customer purchasing limits it imposed as a response to increased demand during the coronavirus emergency.

“As stock continues to build, we have been reviewing whether we still need to limit the number of items people buy. I am pleased to tell you that we will start to remove limits from Sunday,” Chief Executive Mike Coupe said in a letter to customers.

Limits will remain in place on the most popular items which include UHT milk, pasta and tinned tomatoes, he said.

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GLOBAL MARKETS-Oil, shares slip on doubts over Saudi-Russia deal

* U.S. oil futures drop 4.5% on doubts on output cut deal

* Trump says has not offered U.S. output cut

* S&P500 futures fall 0.7% after energy driven overnight gain

* Asian stock markets: tmsnrt.rs/2zpUAr4

By Hideyuki Sano and Herbert Lash

TOKYO/NEW YORK, April 3 (Reuters) – Oil prices retreated on Friday after massive gains, while stocks in Asia edged down, as doubts grew over an oil price deal between Saudi Arabia and Russia that U.S. President Donald Trump said he had brokered.

With the coronavirus pandemic raising the risk of a prolonged global downturn, investors continued to seek the safety of the U.S. dollar and government bonds, pushing U.S. Treasuries yield near their lowest in three weeks.

U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude lost $1.14, or 4.5% to $24.18 a barrel in early Asian trade after having surged a record 24.7% on Thursday. Brent futures dropped $0.70, or 2.67% to $29.24.

Trump said on Thursday he had spoken to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and expects Saudi Arabia and Russia to cut oil output by as much as 10 million to 15 million barrels, as the two countries signalled willingness to make a deal.

Saudi Arabia said it would call an emergency meeting of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, Saudi state media reported.

The amount Trump talked about would represent an unprecedented cut amounting to 10% to 15% of global supply, if he meant output per day – a common unit of measurement.

But Trump did not specify and some analysts say the omission may be intentional.

“He is a business man and smart enough to know these things. A cut of 10-15 million barrel per day (bpd) would be simply impossible,” said Norihiro Fujito, chief investment strategist at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley Securities.

“How could Riyadh and Moscow agree on such a big cut, just about a month after they had fought over a cut of 1.5 million.”

In early March, talks over production cuts between the two countries collapsed, leading them to start a price war that pushed oil prices to the lowest levels in nearly two decades.

Nor did Trump make any offer to reduce U.S. production, now the world’s largest.

“Both Riyadh and Moscow will also be looking for participation from U.S. producers, and this may prove now to be the biggest obstacle to an agreement,” Royal Bank of Canada analysts said in a note.

As oil prices retreated, E-Mini futures for the S&P 500 also fell 0.78% in Asia.

MSCI’s Asia-Pacific index outside Japan dipped 0.15% while Japan’s Nikkei rose 0.3%, helped by overnight gains in Wall Street shares. On Thursday, the S&P 500 gained 2.3%.

SAFE ASSETS IN DEMAND

Investors sought the perceived safety of government bonds. Benchmark U.S. 10-year notes fell in price to last yield 0.593%, near a three-week low of 0.563% touched on Thursday.

More evidence of the damage from widespread stay-at-home orders to contain the spread of coronavirus emerged in the United States, with an unprecedented number of workers – 6.6 million – filing jobless claims.

Projections released by the U.S. Congressional Budget Office showed U.S. gross domestic product will decline by more than 7% in the second quarter as the health crisis takes hold.

Global coronavirus cases surpassed 1 million with more than 52,000 deaths as the pandemic further exploded in the United States and the death toll climbed in Spain and Italy, according to a Reuters tally.

Highly rated U.S. corporate bond issuers raised a record $110.502 billion this week, according to Refinitiv IFR data, as firms borrowed cash in fear the coronavirus crisis may soon limit their access to capital markets.

In the currency market, the dollar maintained its firmness against a basket of currencies as investors and companies continued to hoard the world’s most liquid currency.

The dollar index has risen 1.88% so far this week, even as extreme tightness for dollars in some markets since last month has eased.

The euro steadied at $1.0853 after four straight days of losses. The yen also stepped back to 107.95 per dollar from Wednesday’s two-week high of 106.925.

Gold prices rose ovenright as U.S. jobless claims hit a new peak, intensifying fears of the coming economic slowdown and drove investors toward the safe-haven metal.

Spot gold traded at $1,613.5 per ounce after a 1.28% rise on Thursday. (Editing by Jacqueline Wong)

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Airline industry braces for prolonged recovery from coronavirus crisis

SYDNEY (Reuters) – A full airline industry recovery from the coronavirus looks prolonged at best, analysts said, as new data showed international seat capacity had fallen to 23% of last year’s levels and around half the world’s airplane fleet is in storage.

Carriers including United Airlines Holdings Inc (UAL.O) and Air New Zealand Ltd (AIR.NZ) have warned they are likely to emerge from the crisis smaller, and there are fears others may not survive.

“It is likely that when we get across to the other side of the pandemic, things won’t return to the vibrant market conditions we had at the start of the year,” said Olivier Ponti, vice president at data firm ForwardKeys.

“It’s also possible that a number of airlines will have gone bust and uneconomic discounts will be necessary to attract demand back,” he said in a statement.

ForwardKeys said the number of international airline seats had fallen to 10 million in the week of March 30 to April 5, down from 44.2 million a year ago.

Data firm OAG said several years of industry growth had been lost and it could take until 2022 or 2023 before the volume of flyers returns to the levels that had been expected for 2020.

Cirium, another aviation data provider, said around half of the world’s airplane fleet was now in storage.

“While many of these will be temporary storage, many of these aircraft will never resume service,” Cowen analyst Helane Becker said in a note to clients. “We believe the airline industry will look very different when we get to the other side of this.”

Planemakers are looking at drastic cuts in wide-body production amid a slump in demand for the industry’s largest jetliners, manufacturing and supplier sources said.

Deliveries of long-range jets like the Boeing Co (BA.N) 777 or 787 and Airbus SE (AIR.PA) A350 or A330 have been particularly badly hit as airlines seek deferrals and many withhold progress payments.

British Airways said on Thursday it has struck a deal with its unions to suspend more than 30,000 cabin crew and ground staff in one of the airline industry’s most dramatic moves yet to survive the coronavirus pandemic.

With global travel in turmoil as the virus takes hold around the world, BA’s owner, IAG (ICAG.L), said it would also cut capacity by 90% in April and May, and scrap its dividend, in a desperate bid to survive the worst crisis in its history.

Southwest Airlines Co (LUV.N) said on Thursday it intends to apply for U.S. government aid to help it ride out the sharp drop in travel demand.

“We still don’t know the severity of this situation. We still don’t know how long it will last,” Southwest Chief Executive Gary Kelly said in a video message.

Vietnam Airlines HVN.HM will lose 50 trillion dong ($2.12 billion) in revenue this year as most of its 106-strong fleet have been grounded due to the coronavirus, state media reported on Thursday.

Up to 10,000 employees, or half the company’s staff, will have to stop working while others’ salaries have been cut, Tuoi Tre newspaper cited the Chief Executive Officer Duong Chi Thanh as saying.

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