Europe’s virus toll surges but Wuhan cautiously reopens
AFP – The accelerating death toll from the coronavirus epidemic sweeping the globe surged past 20,000 in Europe on Saturday, with hardest-hit Italy and Spain both reporting more than 800 dead in a single day.
As many as one-third of the world’s population is now living under lockdown and US President Donald Trump says he is considering placing New York state under “quarantine”, as the Chinese city where the outbreak began has begun to return to normality.
The worst hit country, Italy, announced 889 new COVID-19 deaths on Saturday, pushing it past the 10,000 mark, and Spain added 832, as Madrid officials said the epidemic seemed to be nearing a peak.
Russia will become the latest country to close borders on Monday in an attempt to slow the pandemic’s spread, according to a government decree.
More than 600,000 cases of the novel coronavirus have been officially recorded around the world since the outbreak began late last year, according to an AFP tally.
Variations in testing regimes mean the true number is likely far higher and confirmed deaths are mounting.
Europe is now the worst-hit continent with 20,059 deaths. France has seen close to 2,000 fatalities and the British toll passed 1,000 on Saturday.
Spanish official Fernando Simon suggested the virus was “very, very close” to peaking in his country: “The increase is slowing or stabilising little-by-little.”
Elsewhere, Iran announced 139 more deaths and India sealed off a dozen Punjab villages that had been visited by a guru now known to be infected and a possible “super-spreader”.
Sri Lanka recorded its first death and Turkey hit 100 fatalities.
South African police resorted to rubber bullets in Johannesburg to enforce social distancing on a crowd queueing for supplies outside a supermarket during a national lockdown.
The United States now has the world’s highest number of COVID-19 cases but per capita European nations are still the worst hit, with emergency services across the world struggling to cope.
– Wuhan partially reopens –
However, two months of almost total isolation appear to have paid off in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the virus first emerged.
Residents have been forbidden to leave the city since January, with roadblocks installed and millions subject to dramatic restrictions on their daily life.
But on Saturday people were allowed to enter the city and most of the subway network restarted. Some shopping centres will open their doors next week.
The US, which now has more than 104,000 COVID-19 patients, invoked emergency powers Friday to force a private company to make medical equipment.
With 60 percent of the US in lockdown and infections skyrocketing, Trump has signed the largest stimulus package in US history, worth $2 trillion — and now seems set to go further.
“We’d like to see NY quarantined because it’s a hotspot — New York, New Jersey, maybe one or two other places, certain parts of Connecticut quarantined,” Trump said, without elaborating.
– ‘Enough, enough’ –
Italy recorded almost 1,000 deaths from the virus on Friday — the worst one-day toll anywhere since the pandemic began.
One coronavirus sufferer, a cardiologist from Rome who has since recovered, recalled his hellish experience at a hospital in the capital.
“The treatment for the oxygen therapy is painful, looking for the radial artery is difficult. Desperate other patients were crying out, ‘enough, enough’,” he told AFP.
Infection rates in Italy are on a downward trend, but the head of the national health institute Silvio Brusaferro said it was not out of the woods yet, predicting a peak “in the next few days”.
Spain has the world’s second-highest death toll and its cases jumped to 72,248 on Saturday as the country moves to ramp up testing.
Belgium and Luxembourg also saw a steep climb in deaths, with 353 recorded in the former on Saturday — up from 289 the day before — and 15 in the grand duchy, up from nine.
Europe has suffered the brunt of the coronavirus crisis in recent weeks, with millions across the continent on lockdown and the streets of Paris, Rome and Madrid eerily empty.
Meanwhile, other countries across the world were bracing for the virus’s full impact, with AFP tallies showing more than 26,000 deaths globally.
The World Health Organization’s regional director for Africa warned the continent faces a “dramatic evolution” of the pandemic.
As even rich countries struggle, aid groups warn the toll could be in the millions in low-income countries and war zones such as Syria and Yemen, where healthcare systems are in tatters.