Rattled world ‘at war’ with coronavirus

A man wearing a protective face mask crosses the deserted Rue de Rivoli in Paris
A man wearing a protective face mask crosses the deserted Rue de Rivoli in Paris as a lockdown is imposed to slow the rate of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in France, March 18, 2020. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

Hundreds of millions of people faced a world turned upside down on Wednesday by unprecedented emergency measures against the coronavirus pandemic that is killing the old and vulnerable and threatening prolonged economic misery.

“This is a once-in-a-hundred-year type event,” said Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, warning the crisis could last six months as his nation became the latest to restrict gatherings and overseas travel.

The fast-spreading disease that jumped from animals to humans in China has now infected over 212,000 people and caused 8,700 deaths in 164 nations, triggering emergency lockdowns and injections of cash unseen since World War Two.

“We have never lived through anything like this,” Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez told a parliament chamber nearly empty with more than 90% of lawmakers staying away and a masked and gloved cleaner wiping handrails between speeches. 

“And our society, which had grown used to changes that expand our possibilities of knowledge, health and life, now finds itself at war to defend all we have taken for granted.”

Thirty-two more people have died in England after testing positive for coronavirus – taking the total number of UK deaths to 104. It follows the biggest daily leap in confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the UK after 676 infections were diagnosed in the last 24 hours. Schools across the UK will close from Friday until further notice, the education secretary has announced. Speaking in the House of Commons, Gavin Williamson also confirmed that exams and assessments would not be held this academic year.

Italy and France have had their highest number of deaths from coronavirus in a day, with 475 and 89 more fatalities respectively. The Italy deaths – an increase of 19% in the last 24 hours – bring the country’s total to 2,978. The 89 deaths in France took the total to 264, an increase of almost 51% and much higher than the previous high of 36 deaths, as the country struggled with its second day of a nationwide lockdown. Confirmed cases in France rose by 1,404 on Wednesday from the day before – an increase of 18% – bringing the total to 9,134.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday lockdown orders would be issued unless people stepped up compliance with guidelines urging them to stay at home to help halt the spread of the coronavirus.

“Yesterday we gave clear instructions … asking people to stay at home as much as they can and to go outside only when it’s vital, for food supplies and other such needs we specified,” he said in an interview with Israeli Channel 12 TV.

The U.S. Congress scrambled to limit the economic damage of the coronavirus pandemic on Wednesday as the Senate prepared to vote on a $105 billion-plus aid package and Republican President Donald Trump pushed for a third, $1 trillion plan.

The Republican-controlled Senate is expected to vote on a proposal that bolsters safety-net programs and provides free testing for the highly contagious coronavirus, which has killed at least 118 people across the United States.

The Norwegian government will propose emergency legislation granting it the right to make decisions without consulting parliament to address the coronavirus outbreak, Prime Minister Erna Solberg said on Wednesday. Calling it a once-in-a-generation national crisis, Solberg said in a rare address to the nation that the oil-producing Nordic country of 5.4 million people would be willing to do “whatever it takes” to protect jobs and that the crisis was a time for national unity. “This is not a time for ‘me’. This is a time for ‘us’,” Solberg said in a televised speech hours after announcing the emergency legislation. “We trust each other. It is this trust that will carry us through this crisis.”

In Spain the surging death toll from the coronavirus epidemic in Spain drove a regional health official to tears on Wednesday, while Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez predicted an economic slump, urging all to rally in what he called a “war” against the virus.

Portugal‘s parliament gave the green light on Wednesday to decreeing a nationwide state of emergency for the first time in the country’s democratic history in an attempt to contain the growing coronavirus outbreak. Possible measures include restriction on movement of people, temporary requisitioning of businesses, suspension of the right to strike and restrictions to protests and public gatherings. Armed forces can be deployed to enforce the measures.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday urged all German citizens to help fight the spread of the coronavirus by sticking to rules aimed at reducing direct social contact and avoiding as many new infections as possible. “It is serious. Take it seriously,” Merkel said in a televised speech. “Since German reunification, actually, since World War Two, there has never been a challenge for our country in which acting in solidarity was so very crucial.” Merkel appealed to citizens to abide by the unprecedented rules restricting public life, agreed with the 16 federal states earlier this week, adding: “As the government, we will always re-examine what can be corrected, but also what may still be necessary.” Her government has advised the country’s 16 regions to shut schools and daycare facilities until the end of the Easter holiday. Shops, except for grocery stores, bakeries, pharmacies banks and other essential businesses have been shut.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan advised Turks on Wednesday not to leave home unless necessary for three weeks and to minimise social contact until the threat of the coronavirus recedes, but did not tell them to stay away from work. Turkey announced overnight its first death related to the coronavirus and a doubling of its confirmed cases in one day to 98 after it ramped up steps to combat the virus’ spread, closing cafes, banning mass prayers and halting flights to 20 countries.

French health authorities reported 89 new deaths from coronavirus on Wednesday, taking the total to 264 or an increase of almost 51%, a much more marked rise than recently seen as the country was in its second day of a lockdown aimed at containing the outbreak. During a press conference, health agency director Jerome Salomon added the number of cases had risen to 9,134, up from 7,730 on Tuesday, which is a rise of 18% in 24 hours. Salomon said 931 people were in a serious condition, needing life support.

The United States and Canada closed their mutual border to “non-essential traffic” on Wednesday while a military hospital ship was due to head to New York City as part of a growing battle to slow the spread of the coronavirus. In a struggle that he previously minimized but now describes as akin to war, President Donald Trump said he was invoking a decades-old law called the Defense Production Act to allow the U.S. government to accelerate production of needed equipment such as masks and protective gear during the health crisis. Vice President Mike Pence, leading the federal response to the virus, said the government was asking every American to delay elective medical procedures during the crisis while the healthcare system deals with the threat of the fast-spreading virus.

North Macedonia has declared a state of emergency as it bids to halt the spread of coronavirus, President Stevo Pendarovski said on Wednesday after meeting top government and health officials in Skopje. North Macedonia has already introduced an array of measures to curb the spread of the virus, including a ban on public gatherings and on entry to foreign nationals. It also closed most border crossings and postponed an April 12 general election. So far, 35 people in the landlocked Balkan country have tested positive for the virus.

Nigeria will from Saturday ban entry to arrivals from 13 of the countries worst affected by the coronavirus epidemic, the minister of interior said on Wednesday. All the countries on the list, which includes the United States, Britain, Germany, China, Italy, Iran, South Korea and Japan, have reported more than 1,000 coronavirus cases.

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