MADRID: Bells tolled in Madrid’s deserted central square and flags were lowered in a day of mourning on Monday as Spain raced to build field hospitals to treat an onslaught of coronavirus patients.

In the United States, the government’s top infectious-disease expert warned that smaller cities were about to see cases take off the way they had in New York City.

A navy hospital ship with 1,000 beds arrived in New York to help relieve the crisis gripping the city. The USNS Comfort, also sent to New York City after 9/11, will be used to treat non-coronavirus patients while packed hospitals deal with Covid-19 cases.

In Japan, officials announced a new date for the Tokyo Olympics — from July 23 to Aug 8 of next year — as a spike in reported infections fuelled suspicions that the government was understating the extent of the country’s outbreak in recent weeks while it was still hoping to salvage the Games.

Moscow locked down its 12 million people as Russia braced for sweeping nationwide restrictions. Israel said 70-year-old Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “is quarantining himself” after an aide tested positive for the virus.

And in Britain, Prince Charles, the heir to the throne who tested positive for the virus last week, ended his period of isolation and is in good health, his office said.

In another bit of positive news, new numbers released in Italy showed a continued slowdown in the rate of new confirmed cases and a record number of people cured in that hard-hit country. The World Health Organization’s emergencies chief said cases in both Italy and Spain were potentially stabilising while warning that this is no time to let up on tough containment measures.

Three-quarters of a million people around the world have become infected and over 35,000 have died, according to a running count kept by Johns Hopkins University. The US has reported over 140,000 infections and more than 2,500 deaths so far, with New York City the worst hot spot.

Spain overtook China in reported coronavirus infections as the outbreak stretched scores of Spanish hospitals to their breaking point. With a population of 47 million people to China’s 1.4 billion, Spain saw its official tally of infections climb past 85,000. It also reported over 800 deaths over a 24-hour period, for an overall toll of more than 7,300.

Experts say those figures and those in every other country are much lower than the true numbers, because of limited testing, counting irregularities and mild cases that have been missed.

Many coronavirus deaths in Spain and Italy that happen at home or at nursing homes are not even counted.

Italy reported that more than 800 people had died in the past day, bringing the country’s death toll to nearly 11,600. It added over 4,000 new infections, but also a record 1,590 cured.

“We are saving lives by staying at home, by maintaining social distance, by traveling less and by closing schools,” said Dr Luca Richeldi, a lung specialist. The WHO’s emergencies chief said the caseloads in Italy and Spain might be levelling off. “It is our fervent hope that that is the case,” Dr. Michael Ryan said.

“But we have to now push the virus down, and that will not happen by itself.” Six of Spain’s 17 regions were at their limit of intensive care unit beds, and three more were close to it, authorities said. Crews of workers were frantically building more field hospitals.

Nearly 15 percent of all those infected in Spain, almost 13,000 people, are healthcare workers, hurting hospitals’ efforts to help the tsunami of people gasping for breath.

In hard-hit Madrid, flags were lowered to half-mast for an official mourning period. During a minute of silence for the dead, Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square was empty as bells tolled.

In the US on Sunday, as deaths in New York state surpassed 1,000, the majority of them in New York City, President Donald Trump extended stay-at-home recommendations for a month in an abrupt turnaround from his previous stance.

The move came after Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said up to 200,000 Americans could die and millions become infected if lockdowns and social distancing did not continue.

Published in Dawn, March 31st, 2020