Europe virus toll soars as Asia braces for second wave

Updated March 22, 2020

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Governments around the world are imposing lockdowns as they scramble to contain the spread of the coronavirus. — AFP
Governments around the world are imposing lockdowns as they scramble to contain the spread of the coronavirus. — AFP

The death toll from the coronavirus pandemic engulfing Europe catapulted in several hotspots across the continent despite ramped up restrictions to contain the ballooning outbreak, as Asia braced for a possible second wave of infections on its shores.

The virus has upended lives across the world, forcing nearly a billion people indoors, closing businesses and schools and sparking economic upheaval that many fear could lead to a global recession unlike any experienced for decades.

It has so far killed more than 13,000 people and infected over 300,000 around the world, with the epicentre now in Europe after shifting from China where the virus first emerged late last year.

Italy marked a grim milestone Saturday, surpassing China's death toll as it confirmed more than 4,800 fatalities — now the worst anywhere in the world.

Spain, France and the United Kingdom all reported spikes in fatalities and caseloads over the weekend too, with fears mounting that numbers could mushroom in line with Italy's in the coming weeks.

Lockdown measures in Italy have done little to stem the outbreak and the government announced the closure of all non-essential factories.

Police patrolled the deserted streets of Rome on Sunday, while checks were carried out on beaches after local officials complained people were defying orders to catch some time in the sun.

In his weekly prayer — now being streamed live to avoid attracting crowds — the Pope urged all Italians to follow isolation measures.

"Let us do the things that the government asks us to do for the good of us all," Pope Francis said.

'Hard days ahead'

Spain has imposed similar restrictive measures, locking millions in their homes and shutting businesses and schools across the country, which has failed to slow the tidal wave.

It recorded close to 400 new fatalities on Sunday, bringing the total to 1,720, prompting a dire warning from the Prime Minister.

"We must prepare ourselves emotionally and psychologically for very hard days ahead," Pedro Sanchez said Saturday.

Residents across France — where the death toll jumped to 562 — remained shut in their homes, as a curfew was imposed in some regions and the mayor of Paris called for even more drastic confinement measures in a city under lockdown.

The UK, meanwhile, inched toward similar measures.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Sunday told 1.5 million high-risk people to stay indoors, as he warned of "accelerating" cases.

"We are only a matter of weeks — two or three — behind Italy. The Italians have a superb health care system. And yet their doctors and nurses have been completely overwhelmed by the demand," he said.

Pubs, restaurants, theatres and leisure centres had already been closed across the country, and the government said it could give police, public health and immigration officers extra powers to contain the outbreak.

Delhi deserted

While the number of cases in China — which reported its first local infection in four days on Sunday — has slumped dramatically since the crisis began, there are fears in Asia of "imported" cases from other hotspots like Europe.

Thailand reported its highest daily rise in cases, taking its total to nearly 600, while Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia have also reported a spike after numbers had plateaued earlier.

Millions of people in India were confined to their homes on Sunday as the country went into lockdown with a one-day nationwide "self-imposed curfew".

Normally bustling streets in the capital New Delhi and the financial hub of Mumbai were mostly deserted and many shops shuttered.

"If this helps stop the spread, then the government can think of extending it for two to three more days," said Jaiveer Singh, a security guard at Delhi's Lodhi Gardens park, largely empty on Sunday.

Tighter restrictions are now in place elsewhere in Asia, with Australia shutting its borders to foreigners and non-residents and Pakistan suspending international flights.

'Shared sacrifice'

More than a third of Americans were meanwhile adjusting to life in various phases of lockdown, including in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Other parts of the United States are expected to ramp up restrictions as well after New Jersey on Saturday told residents to stay indoors.

"This is a time of shared national sacrifice, but also a time to treasure our loved ones," US President Donald Trump said. "We're going to have a great victory."

The US Food and Drug Administration also approved the first coronavirus test that can be conducted entirely at the point of care for a patient — and deliver results in 45 minutes.

Vice President Mike Pence and his wife tested negative for the coronavirus, his press secretary tweeted on Saturday. The couple had taken the test after one of Pence's staffers contracted the illness.

The pandemic has bludgeoned global stock markets, and the US — the world's biggest economy — is preparing a huge emergency stimulus package that could reach $4 trillion.

Several European countries have already announced their own stimulus packages to stave off economic collapse, and experts warned the global fallout from the virus could be the worst in decades.

"At least for the months March to May, economic data will probably show a contraction not seen before in peacetime," Holger Schmieding, an economist with Berenberg, said Sunday.

Iraq lockdown

The coronavirus has infected more than 1,200 across Africa, where healthcare systems are limited and social distancing measures are difficult in crowded cities.

The Middle East also remains on high alert, where Iran — which suffered a major outbreak — reported 129 deaths on Sunday. But the Islamic Republic has refused to join the rest of the world in imposing heavy restrictions.

El Salvador joined several central and South American countries in imposing quarantine measures on Saturday, as Colombia announced its first coronavirus death.

While the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions are the hardest hit by the virus, the World Health Organisation has warned that young people are also vulnerable.

Accurate Covid-19 figures are difficult to reach because many of the victims suffered from other illnesses, and infection rates are uncertain because of a lack of testing in many countries.