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Agencies
March 22, 2020

Corona confines one billion people to homes worldwide

Top Story

A
Agencies
March 22, 2020

LONDON/NEW DELHI: Almost one billion people were confined to their homes worldwide Saturday as the global coronavirus death toll shot past 13,000 and US states rolled out stay-at-home measures already imposed across swathes of Europe.The fast-spreading pandemic has completely upended lives across the planet, restricting movement, shutting schools and forcing millions to work from home.

Hundreds of millions of people worldwide kicked off the weekend under a coronavirus lockdown, as the global death toll accelerated sharply and the World Health Organisation warned young people they were "not invincible". The pandemic has completely upended lives across the planet, sharply restricting the movement of huge populations, shutting down schools and businesses, and forcing millions to work from home — while many have lost their livelihoods entirely.

While President Donald Trump insisted the United States was “winning” the war against the virus, individual states dramatically ramped up restrictions, with New York and Illinois joining California in ordering residents to stay home.

The virus death toll surged 12,836 worldwide, with 4,000 alone in worst-hit Italy where the daily number of fatalities has shot up relentlessly over the past week.

While the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions are the hardest hit by the virus, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that young people were also vulnerable. “Today I have a message for young people: you are not invincible. This virus could put you in hospital for weeks — or even kill you,” Tedros said. “Even if you don´t get sick, the choices you make about where you go could be the difference between life and death for someone else.”

China on Saturday reported no new local infections for a third straight day, and the WHO said the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus emerged late last year, offered a glimmer of “hope for the rest of the world”.

But there are growing concerns of a new wave of “imported” infections in the region, with Hong Kong reporting 48 suspected cases on Friday — its biggest daily jump since the crisis began. Many of them have a recent history of travel to or from Europe.

Across Europe, governments continued to rigorously enforce lockdown measures as the continent´s most celebrated boulevards and squares remained silent and empty even as warmer spring weather arrived.

Italy reported its worst single day, adding another 627 fatalities and taking its reported total to 4,032 despite efforts to stem the spread. The nation of 60 million now accounts for 36 percent of the world´s coronavirus deaths and its death rate of 8.6 percent among confirmed infections is significantly higher than in most other countries.

France, Italy, Spain and other European countries have told people to stay at home, threatening fines in some cases, and Bavaria became the first region in Germany to order a lockdown.

Britain, falling in line with its neighbours in the European Union, also announced tougher restrictions, telling pubs, restaurants and theatres to close and promising to help cover the wages of affected workers.

With virus fears gripping the United States, its largest state California — with over 1,000 cases and 19 deaths — told its 40 million residents to stay at home.

New York state, which has reported over 7,000 cases and 39 deaths, followed suit on Friday, ordering its nearly 20 million residents to do the same from Sunday evening.

Trump applauded the New York and California decisions but said he did not think a nationwide lockdown was needed. “Those are really two hotbeds,” he said. “I don´t think we´ll ever find (a US-wide lockdown) necessary.”

Shortly after the president spoke, the governor of Illinois ordered residents of the midwestern state to stay at home and the Connecticut governor did the same. The stay-at-home orders put the three most populous cities in the United States — New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — under lockdown.

Trump also announced Friday that the US and Mexico have agreed to restrict non-essential travel across their border beginning on Saturday.

Meanwhile a staffer in the office of US Vice President Mike Pence, the pointman for Washington´s response to the outbreak, tested positive for the coronavirus.

France said more than 4,000 people were fined on the first day of confinement and ministers described those breaking the rules as “idiots”. The strict measures follow the template set by China, as a lockdown imposed in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, appeared to have paid off.

Europe now accounts for more than half of the world´s fatalities linked to COVID-19. Accurate figures are difficult to come by, however, as many of those who die suffer from other illnesses and infection rates are uncertain because of a lack of testing in many countries.

The shadow of the virus is lengthening across Africa and the Middle East too.

Gabon confirmed sub-Saharan Africa´s second known death, with reported cases across Africa standing at more than 900 and rising fast.

In Iran, both supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani promised the country would overcome the outbreak — but still refused to join the rest of the world in imposing heavy restrictions.

In Latin America, Cuba and Bolivia both announced they were closing their borders, and Colombia said it would begin mandatory isolation from Tuesday.

The pandemic has sparked fears of a global recession, battering the world´s stock markets and prompting governments to push huge spending plans to limit the damage.

The global sporting calendar, shredded by the pandemic, still has one major event coming up that has not yet been called off — the 2020 summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Almost a week into tight restrictions on free movement and the closure of most shops in Spain, police intensified their efforts to enforce confinement rules with fines and extra patrols to stop city-dwellers with second homes in the country from leaving town for the weekend.

Spain now has the third-highest number of infections worldwide. On Saturday it reported almost 5,000 new cases in the past day, bringing the total to nearly 25,000. The death toll rose to 1,326, up from 1,002 Friday.

In Germany’s southern state of Bavaria, town squares were empty. Pigeons outnumbered people in London’s usually bustling Trafalgar Square and Leicester Square a day after the British government ordered the closure of all bars, restaurants, movie theaters and other places where people congregate. But shoppers still flocked to street markets in both countries, in a sign that restrictions were being interpreted in a patchwork fashion.

The number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 recorded in Africa rose above 1,000 Saturday, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At least 40 of Africa’s 54 countries now have cases.

Germany’s southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg on Saturday offered to take in patients from the neighboring French region of Alsace that’s struggling with a surge of infections overwhelming hospitals.

Workers near Moscow are rushing to build a clinic to treat hundreds of coronavirus patients as Russia prepares for a wave of infections. Placards in the style of Soviet propaganda posters have been erected near the site, with one showing Mayor Sergei Sobyanin pointing at the viewer and the slogan “Builders — Minutes count!”

China has been sending aid to several European countries, promoting its expertise and experience gained from fighting the outbreak at home. An Air China flight carrying 18 tons of medical supplies including hundreds of thousands of surgical and protection masks landed in the Greek capital, Athens, Saturday morning.

A Navy sailor assigned to United States Central Command headquarters in Florida has tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said more than 220,000 Americans have been screened at airports while returning to the United States from coronavirus affected countries.

Car maker BMW said it would shut down a huge manufacturing complex in South Carolina from April 3 to 19 and Nissan said it would suspend vehicle production at its two Mexican assembly plants from next Wednesday through April 14. Auto production has resumed in China, but only partially.

Turkey more than tripled the number of countries to which flights have been suspended to 68, as authorities banned picnics, barbecues and send-off gatherings for new soldiers.

Authorities in Cyprus turned away a boat carrying around 100 migrants, citing government directives banning the entry of foreign nationals to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Colombian President Iván Duque announced Friday night that everyone would be required to isolate in their homes for three weeks starting Tuesday. Peru, Ecuador and Venezuela already are in lockdown.

Some small relief came to the Madrid’s Severo Ochoa hospital on Saturday when an army emergency unit arrived to take 15 patients to a huge field hospital the military set up in a convention center in the capital.

Meanwhile, a senior economist at FAO and agricultural analysts said lockdowns and panic food buying due to the coronavirus pandemic could ignite world food inflation even though there are ample supplies of staple grains and oilseeds in key exporting nations.

“All you need is panic buying from big importers such as millers or governments to create a crisis,” said Abdolreza Abbassian, chief economist at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

“It is not a supply issue, but it is a behavioral change over food security,” he told British wire service by phone from Rome, the FAO headquarters. “What if bulk buyers think they can’t get wheat or rice shipments in May or June? That is what could lead to a global food supply crisis.”

Consumers across the world from Singapore to the United States have queued at super markets in recent weeks to stock up on items ranging from rice and hand sanitizers to toilet paper.

The global benchmark Chicago wheat futures rose more than 6% this week, the biggest weekly gain in nine months, while rice prices in Thailand, the world’s 2nd largest exporter of the grain, have climbed to the highest since August 2013.

France’s grain industry is scrambling to find enough trucks and staff to keep factories and ports running as the panic buying of pasta and flour coincides with a surge in wheat exports.

Restrictions imposed by some European Union countries at their borders with other member states in response to the pandemic are also disrupting food supplies, representatives of the industry and farmers said. Logistics are likely to be a major global issue, analysts said.

Asian buyers were inactive this week with uncertainty looming in the market. “We are not sure about the demand. What it is going to look like in June or July?” said one Singapore-based purchasing manager at a flour milling company that has operations across Southeast Asia. “Restaurant business is down, and as a result demand is a bit soft right now.”

Asian wheat importers, including the region’s top importer Indonesia, have been taking a bulk of the cargoes from the Black Sea region amid a global oversupply.

Meanwhile, a KLM flight from Amsterdam to New Delhi was turned around midair, an official and a passenger said on Saturday, after apparent confusion about India´s coronavirus regulations.

Because of the pandemic, India has imposed a bar on flights from Europe and from Sunday a one-week complete ban on all incoming international commercial flights comes into force. Passengers on the KLM flight, which had been due to arrive in the Indian capital early Saturday, included a pregnant woman who needed medical treatment on returning to Amsterdam.

The aircraft was told late Friday “to return to its point of departure due to operational reasons while it was still airborne,” the official said without wishing to be identified. “Delhi does not have permission to land (planes) so we don´t know why KLM decided to fly out from Amsterdam despite a clear advisory from the Indian government.”

One of the 120 or so passengers, also speaking anonymously, said that the announcement that they were going back was made over Russia around four hours into the flight.

The Hindu daily reported that the aircraft had around 100 Indians on board who had started their journeys in the United States and Canada. The flight was also meant to bring home a number of Dutch citizens from India, it added.

Despite the bar on flights from Europe, the Indian foreign ministry gave clearance to the KLM flight because the passengers were only transiting through Amsterdam, according to the Hindu.

But India´s Ministry of Civil Aviation thought otherwise and the plane was asked to head back to the Netherlands, the paper said.

“We don´t know what to do... Please help,” one passenger said in a Twitter video, apparently shot at Schipol, carried by the Hindu.

Tejus Vispute, the husband in India of the pregnant woman, said his wife had been admitted to hospital after landing back in Amsterdam and later discharged.

Meanwhile, US Vice President Mike Pence said Saturday that he and his wife would be tested for coronavirus after one of his office staffers contracted the illness.

Pence said that there was little reason to believe he had been exposed to the employee, who has not been to the White House since Monday. However, he said, “Given the unique position that I have as vice president and as the leader of the White House coronavirus task force, both I and my wife will be tested for the coronavirus later this afternoon.”