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March 30, 2020

Europe, US endure darkest days of corona crisis

Top Story

March 30, 2020

MADRID/FRANKFURT/PARIS/LONDON: The global coronavirus death toll surged past 33,600 with 2,800 new deaths over the weekend while 715,000 infected cases reported worldwide as Europe and the United States endured their darkest days of the crisis.A back-flip from US President Donald Trump on quarantining New York highlighted the panic and confusion across many parts of the world in trying to contain the pandemic, which has seen more than a third of humanity placed under unprecedented lockdowns.

The virus continued to leave a devastating imprint on nearly every aspect of society: wiping out millions of jobs, overwhelming healthcare services and draining national treasuries. The ongoing situation can take six months to improve in several countries.

Europe alone accounted for more than 20,000 fatalities, where hardest-hit Italy and Spain each reported more than 800 dead in one day.

Pablo Rodriguez, a radiologist at a Madrid hospital, described the influx of patients as "a total tsunami". "It´s like going to the front line in a war," he said.

Officials in some countries have warned that the worst is yet to come. But in the Chinese city of Wuhan where the virus first struck late last year, officials took tentative steps back towards normality, partially reopening it after more than two months of near-total isolation for its 11 million residents.

Trump decided late Saturday against imposing a broad lockdown on New York and its neighbours after a strong pushback from local political leaders and warnings of the panic it could spark. "A quarantine will not be necessary," Trump tweeted, about eight hours after he stunned the New York metropolitan region -- the epicentre of the US outbreak -- with a proposal to place it under quarantine.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, asked area residents not to travel except for essential purposes. Trump´s reversal came on the same day the US death toll topped 2,100, more than doubling in just three days. Of the fatalities, more than a quarter were in New York City.

Health officials say they fear New York may follow the deadly path charted by Italy, with health professionals exhausted and hospitals desperately short of protective equipment and ventilators. "It´s abysmal," said Andrew, a psychiatry resident in a New York hospital who spoke on condition his name be changed. He is now quarantined at home with a likely case of the virus himself.

European nations have been harder hit than the US on a per capita basis with over 20,000 deaths -- around half in worst-hit Italy.

Spain, with the world´s second-highest toll, added 832 deaths on Saturday for a total of 5,812.

Madrid toughened a nationwide lockdown, halting all non-essential activities, though officials said the epidemic in the country seemed to be nearing a peak.

Russia said it would close its borders on Monday, despite reporting relatively low levels of the virus.

In France, which has seen close to 2,000 deaths, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe warned the "battle" was just beginning.

The British toll passed 1,000 on Saturday while Belgium saw a steep climb in deaths, with 353 recorded on Saturday -- up from 289 the day before.

Elsewhere, Iran announced 139 more deaths, and India sealed a dozen villages that had been visited by a guru now known to be infected and a possible "super-spreader".

South African police used rubber bullets in Johannesburg to enforce social distancing on a crowd queuing for supplies outside a supermarket during a national lockdown.

In Italy, a cardiologist from Rome who has recovered from COVID-19 recalled his hellish experience.

Infection rates in Italy are on a downward trend. The head of the national health institute Silvio Brusaferro predicted a peak "in the next few days".

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.

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.

Meanwhile, Thomas Schaefer, the finance minister of Germany´s Hesse state, has committed suicide apparently after becoming "deeply worried" over how to cope with the economic fallout from the coronavirus, state premier Volker Bouffier said Sunday.

Schaefer, 54, was found dead near a railway track on Saturday. The Wiesbaden prosecution´s office said they believe he died by suicide. "We are in shock, we are in disbelief and above all we are immensely sad," Bouffier said in a recorded statement.

Hesse is home to Germany´s financial capital Frankfurt, where major lenders like Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank have their headquarters. The European Central Bank is also located in Frankfurt.

A visibly shaken Bouffier recalled that Schaefer, who was Hesse´s finance chief for 10 years, had been working "day and night" to help companies and workers deal with the economic impact of the pandemic. "Today we have to assume that he was deeply worried," said Bouffier, a close ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel. "It´s precisely during this difficult time that we would have needed someone like him," he added.

Meanwhile, more than 3.38 billion people worldwide have been asked or ordered to follow confinement measures in the fight against COVID-19.

That represents around 43 percent of the total world population, which is 7.79 billion people according to a United Nations count in 2020.

The Chinese province Hubei and its capital city Wuhan, the first epicentre of the novel coronavirus, were the first to introduce confinement measures at the end of January. As Hubei province starts opening up again after its months-long isolation, confinement measures have multiplied worldwide in recent weeks.

On Sunday at least 3.381 billion people in at least 78 countries and territories have been called on to stay at home. Most of those -- at least 2.45 billion people in 42 countries and territories -- are under obligatory confinement.

In Europe, the affected countries include Britain, France, Italy and Spain. In Asia, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and more are affected, while many nations have measures in the Middle East including Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel.

In Africa, South Africa, Morocco, Madagascar, Rwanda and more are affected. In the Americas, confinement measures are in place in Colombia, Argentina, Peru and more, including a large part of the United States. In Oceania, New Zealand has imposed a lockdown.

Congo-Brazzaville and two regions in Ghana will also join the list early next week.

At least nine countries or territories -- comprising some 511 million people -- have urged their populations to stay home without imposing threats of punishment. These include Germany, Iran, Russia and Uganda.

At least 21 other countries or territories -- comprising some 384 million people -- have imposed evening curfews. This measure is particularly widespread in Africa (Egypt, Kenya, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Mauritania, Gabon) and Latin America (Chile, Ecuador, Dominican Republic, Panama, Puerto Rico).

Saudi Arabia, Serbia and the city of Manila in the Philippines have also imposed curfews.

At least seven countries have put their main cities under quarantine, barring populations from entering and exiting.

This is the case for Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Riyadh, Makkah and Medina in Saudi Arabia, Helsinki in Finland, and Baku in Azerbaijan.

Meanwhile, some leaders warn the worst is yet to come as governments roll out new containment measures and rescue packages aimed a staunching the bloodletting of economies everywhere.

The carnage in worst-hit Italy and Spain suggests quarantine measures are unlikely to be lifted anytime soon, despite their devastating impacts on the vulnerable.

On the Italian island of Sicily, police with batons and guns moved to protect supermarkets after reports of looting by locals who could no longer afford food. "We have no money to pay, we have to eat," someone reportedly shouted at the cashiers in a Palermo supermarket, according to La Repubblica newspaper.

Spain has toughened an already tight nationwide lockdown by halting all non-essential activities.

In the ground zero-city of Wuhan, however, life is creeping back to normal. Officials say the biggest threat to public health is now imported cases.

"Initially we were more scared and maybe thought it was safer overseas," said Han Li, who is helping process the flood of locals returning to Wuhan after having been were stranded elsewhere during the more than two-month lockdown.

"But now it doesn´t seem this way. It seems it might be safer within China."

Meanwhile, Britain´s deputy chief medical officer warned Sunday that life may not return to normal for six months or more, as the country battles the coronavirus outbreak.

Jenny Harries said it would take two or three weeks to assess the impact of the current rules for people to stay at home wherever possible to limit the spread of COVID-19. "If we are successful, we will have squashed the top of that (infection) curve, which is brilliant," she told the government´s daily press conference. "But we must not then suddenly revert to our normal way of living -- that would be quite dangerous. If we stop then, all of our efforts would be wasted and we could potentially see a second peak."

She said measures to contain the virus would be reviewed every three weeks, "probably over the next six months" or even longer -- but stressed that did not necessarily mean a full lockdown for that long. "Gradually we will be able to hopefully adjust some of the social distancing measures and gradually get us all back to normal," Harries said.

Britain has been on lockdown for a week, with non-essential shops and services closed and people told to stay home except for daily exercise or to get groceries.

The measure was introduced in the face of a rapid spread of the virus. New figures on Sunday revealed that 1,228 people with coronavirus have now died in Britain -- up 209 on the previous 24 hours.