Spain, France impose tight restrictions as infections cross 150,000

NEAR LOCKDOWN: A commercial street remains empty in Barcelona on March 14, 2020 after regional authorities ordered all shops in the region be shuttered from today through March 26, save for those selling food, chemists and petrol stations, in order to slow the coronavirus spread.

AFP – Spain and France have imposed sweeping restrictions to fight the spread of coronavirus, as US President Donald Trump tested negative for the disease that has infected more than 150,000 people worldwide.

Spain on Saturday followed Italy and imposed a near total nationwide lockdown, banning people from leaving home except to go to work, get medical care or buy food.

The disease has so far claimed 196 lives in Spain, making it the worst hit European country after Italy. Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s wife is among those infected.

France meanwhile ordered the closure of restaurants, bars, cinemas and nightclubs but said food shops, pharmacies, banks and tobacconists would remain open and local elections will go ahead on Sunday.

In a sign of growing alarm, the US extended a travel ban imposed on European nations to the United Kingdom and Ireland, coming into force midnight Monday.

Trump agreed to a virus test after he came in to contact with several members of a Brazilian presidential delegation who have since tested positive.

“One week after having dinner with the Brazilian delegation at Mar-a-Lago, the President remains symptom-free,” Trump’s physician Sean Conley said.

The number of COVID-19 cases worldwide has reached more than 156,000 worldwide with more than 5,800 deaths, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

– Borders and airports closed –

A week that saw schools and businesses shut down indefinitely, millions of travellers barred from crossing borders, celebrities and politicians become infected and the whole of Italy locked down ended with a flurry of government announcements.

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Trump declared a national emergency and announced a $50 billion package, with similar measures being taken by governments from Austria to Canada on Saturday.

European nations ramped up border controls, with foreigners barred from crossing into Russia from Norway and Poland. Denmark and the Czech Republic also announced stringent restrictions and Morocco closed its borders despite having only eight cases.

Jordan suspended all flights, closed its borders and shut down schools, while Chile has quarantined more than 1,300 people aboard two cruise ships after an elderly Briton aboard one of them tested positive for the coronavirus.

Squares and streets from Milan to Madrid were deserted on Saturday as government calls to stay at home were heeded by most.

Some Italians took to singing to each other from their windows to beat the isolation.

The country that saw the biggest increase over the last 24 hours was Italy, which recorded 175 new deaths, while Iran had 97 and Spain 63.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed Europe as the epicentre of the pandemic after a dramatic slump in new domestic cases in China, where the virus first emerged in December last year.

China on Sunday reported 16 new imported cases of the coronavirus, the highest in over a week.

– Public health dilemmas –

The human cost is rapidly being matched by the economic cost — financial markets endured a rollercoaster ride all week with spectacular losses triggered by fears of a global recession followed by huge gains after government spending pledges.

US tech giant Apple closed all of its stores outside China until March 27 while British Airways became the latest global firm to hint at drastic action to come, with CEO Alex Cruz telling staff to expect job losses.

Airlines have cancelled thousands of flights worldwide and some airports have shut terminals.

Italian luxury carmaker Ferrari meanwhile said Saturday it was suspending production for two weeks at two of its factories, citing “serious difficulties” as the country was in lockdown.

As economies reel and finance experts mull the impact, governments are also facing up to the public health dilemmas — whether to try to stamp it out entirely with drastic restrictions or try to manage its spread.

British officials have argued for trying to flatten the curve, managing the outbreak to push the peak of the crisis to summer when hospitals will be able to cope better.

They argue this will help create “herd immunity”, though experts are divided over whether there is evidence to support the theory.

– Football seasons curtailed –

“We don’t know enough about the science of this virus, it hasn’t been in our population for long enough,” said the WHO’s Margaret Harris.

Britain had resisted imposing any major restrictions, but the media reported on Saturday that a ban on large gatherings would come into force from next weekend.

The legislation could see the cancellation of events such as the Wimbledon tennis tournament and the Glastonbury music festival, due to begin at the end of June.

Most other governments in affected regions have already begun to take drastic action.

On Sunday, the Philippines closed off Manila, Saudi Arabia banned international flights, New Zealand said international travellers would have to self-isolate on arrival and Chile quarantined more than 1,300 people on two cruise ships after an elderly Briton aboard one of them tested positive for the coronavirus.

South Africa became the first sub-Saharan country to repatriate citizens from China with over 100 nationals who were working and studying in Wuhan city arriving back in their homeland on Saturday.

Africa has so far been spared the worst of the illness but Rwanda declared its first case on Saturday in a sign of the widening global spread and Madagascar said it was suspending flights to Europe for a month from March 20.

Also growing was the impact on the sporting calendar, with football seasons curtailed, Formula One races postponed and cricket tours called off.

Japan was forced to deny claims that the Tokyo Olympics could be called off as well, after Trump said “maybe they postpone it for a year”.

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