THIS picture released by the Vatican shows Pope Francis blessing over an empty St Peter’s Square after he streamed his Angelus prayer on Sunday. The Vatican said its Easter week celebrations would be held this year without worshippers in view of the coronavirus outbreak.—AFP
THIS picture released by the Vatican shows Pope Francis blessing over an empty St Peter’s Square after he streamed his Angelus prayer on Sunday. The Vatican said its Easter week celebrations would be held this year without worshippers in view of the coronavirus outbreak.—AFP

PARIS: Cafes, shops and restaurants shut down across France and Spain on Sunday and travellers faced chaos at US airports as governments stepped up their fight against the coronavirus pandemic which has by now killed more than 6,000.

France ordered the closure of all non-essential businesses, while Spain went a step further and banned people from leaving home except to go to work, get medical care or buy food.

The death toll from the pandemic in Europe passed 2,000 on Sunday, a tally compiled from official sources showed, after 268 new deaths were recorded in Italy.

A total of 2,297 coronavirus-related deaths have now been recorded in Europe, most of them in the continent’s worst-hit country Italy, which has registered 1,809.

Global toll jumps over 6,000

Europe is now the continent where the virus is spreading the fastest, with nations there announcing 517 new deaths within 24 hours, for a total of more than 52,400 confirmed infections. Experts in several countries have warned that the number of cases is likely higher than the official number.

Cases also spiked in Germany and sources said the government planned to shut its borders with France, Switzerland and Austria on Monday.

The disease has now hit all global regions, ripping up sporting and cultural calendars, causing panic in stock markets and companies — particularly airlines — and prompting often contradictory responses from governments.

The United States imposed a travel ban on countries in Europe’s Schengen free-movement area last week, but has since said it would add Britain and Ireland to the list.

China, where the disease originated, is now imposing its own crackdown on international travellers — all will be put into quarantine on arrival — after linking most of its new infections to those coming from overseas.

As the virus continued its global spread, the plight of existing hotspots intensified.

Iran announced 113 new deaths on Sunday, taking its total to 724, and officials urged people to avoid public gatherings.

However, some European governments struggled to respond clearly and decisively to the outbreak.

Britain, which had avoided crackdowns and instead tried to manage the spread and create “herd immunity”, cancelled local elections and hinted that it would follow most other affected European nations and ban mass gatherings.

On the other hand, France allowed municipal elections to go ahead on Sunday even as officials imposed a drastic nationwide shutdown on all non-essential businesses and promised to progressively restrict long-distance travel.

The risk from voting for the elderly was no greater “than going shopping”, insisted Jean-Francois Delfraissy, chairman of France’s coronavirus science council.

Several countries have announced bans on foreigners entering their countries.

Austria banned gatherings of more than five people on Sunday, telling citizens to stay indoors unless absolutely necessary.

Norway announced it would shut ports and airports with international connections on Saturday before retreating a day later and saying although foreigners would be turned away the facilities would remain open.

The spread of the virus has spooked even the countries without significant outbreaks — with both Australia and New Zealand saying that anyone arriving from overseas must self-isolate for two weeks.

“We are going to have to get used to some changes in the way we live our lives,” said Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Kazakhstan declared a state of emergency despite having just eight confirmed infections.

In Africa, which has been spared the worst of the disease, half a dozen countries announced new infections over the weekend.

The announcements sparked restrictions on gatherings in Rwanda, panic-buying in the Seychelles and furious recriminations in Zimbabwe — a country yet to register a single case.

“Coronavirus is the work of God punishing countries that imposed sanctions on us,” said Zimbabwe’s Defence Minister Oppah Muchinguri on Saturday.

Latin America has also recorded only small clusters of infections, though Colombia shut its border with Venezuela over a rise in cases there.

Published in Dawn, March 16th, 2020