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March 29, 2020

Italy, Spain suffer record virus deaths as infection rate surges

AFP
March 29, 2020

ROME: Italy has logged a shocking spike in its already staggering coronavirus death toll, with officials warning the peak of the crisis was still days away, as the global infection rate surges relentlessly upwards.

With more than 300,000 people infected in Europe alone, the disease shows few signs of slowing, and has already cast the world into a recession, economists say.

In the US, which now has more than 104,000 COVID-19 patients, President Donald Trump invoked wartime powers Friday to force a private company to make medical equipment, as the country´s overburdened healthcare system struggles to cope. "Today's action will help ensure the quick production of ventilators that will save American lives," Trump said as he issued the order to auto giant General Motors.

With 60 percent of the country in lockdown, and infections skyrocketing, Trump also signed the largest stimulus package in US history, worth $2 trillion.

It came as 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. In one bright spot, infection rates in Italy continued their recent downward trend. But the head of the national health institute Silvio Brusaferro said the country was not out of the woods yet, predicting "we could peak in the next few days".

Spain too said its rate of new infections appeared to be slowing -- despite also reporting its deadliest day.

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. In Britain, the two men leading the country´s fight against the coronavirus -- Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Health Secretary Matt Hancock -- both announced Friday they had tested positive for COVID-19.

"I am now self-isolating, but I will continue to lead the government´s response via video-conference as we fight this virus," Johnson, who had initially resisted calls for a nationwide lockdown before changing course, wrote on Twitter.

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 faced a "dramatic evolution" of the pandemic, as South Africa also began life under lockdown and reported its first virus death.

In a sign of how difficult the stay-at-home order could be to enforce, police came up against hundreds of shoppers trying to force their way into a supermarket in Johannesburg on Friday, while the streets of a nearby township buzzed with people and traffic.