Italy virus toll exceeds 4,000, Trump says lockdown unnecessary

A patient in a biocontainment unit is carried on a stretcher at the Columbus Covid 2 Hospital in Rome. (AP pic)

NEW YORK: The grim toll of coronavirus deaths in Italy, the world’s worst-hit nation, surged past 4,000 on Friday as New York and other US states joined California in ordering a lockdown to try to bring the pandemic under control.

While new infections were being detected around the planet, there was a glimmer of hope in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the pandemic began in December, with no new cases reported.

As Italy reeled from its worst single-day toll with more than 600 deaths, worldwide fatalities swept past 11,000, with the number of infected people topping 258,000, according to an AFP tally.

Governments and central banks continued meanwhile to throw huge sums of money into the economic battle, hoping that a deep global recession could somehow be dodged.

US President Donald Trump applauded decisions by the governors of New York and California to order residents to stay home but said he did not think a nationwide lockdown was needed.

“Those are really two hotbeds,” Trump said.

“I don’t think we’ll ever find (a US-wide lockdown) necessary,” he said, adding optimistically that the United States was “winning” the war against the virus.

Shortly after Trump spoke, the governor of Illinois ordered residents of the midwestern state to stay at home and the governor of Connecticut did the same.

The stay-at-home orders put the three most populous cities in the United States – New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago – under lockdown.

Britain, falling in line with its neighbours in the European Union, also announced tougher restrictions, telling pubs, restaurants and theatres to close and promising to help cover the wages of affected workers.

Italy reported its worst single day, adding another 627 fatalities and taking its reported total to 4,032 despite government efforts to stem the virus spread.

The nation of 60 million now accounts for 36.2% of the world’s coronavirus deaths and its death rate of 8.6% among those registered with infections is significantly higher than in most other countries.

France on Friday reported 78 more deaths over the last 24 hours, bringing the death toll there to 450.

Hope

In encouraging news, Wuhan reported no new cases in 24 hours.

“Wuhan provides hope for the rest of the world that even the most severe situation can be turned around”, said World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Hours earlier, California, among the worst-hit US states with over 1,000 cases and 19 deaths, told its 40 million residents to stay at home.

New York state, which has reported over 7,000 cases and 38 deaths, followed suit on Friday morning, ordering its nearly 20 million residents to do the same from Sunday evening.

“We’re all in quarantine now,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said.

Illinois issued a similar stay-at-home order.

“Left unchecked, cases in Illinois will rise rapidly, hospital systems will be overwhelmed, protective equipment will become scarce,” Governor J.B. Pritzker said.

“They are taking strong steps. I applaud them,” Trump said, referring to Cuomo and California Governor Gavin Newsom.

Trump also announced Friday that the US and Mexico have agreed to restrict non-essential travel across their border beginning on Saturday.

He said the move, similar to one already announced with northern neighbour Canada, was necessary to prevent the “spread the infection to our border agents, migrants, and to the public at large”.

Across Europe, governments continued to rigorously enforce lockdown measures as the continent’s most celebrated boulevards and squares remained silent and empty even as warmer spring weather arrived.

France, Italy, Spain and other European countries have told people to stay at home, threatening fines in some cases, and Bavaria became the first region in Germany to order a lockdown, imposing restrictions on going out for two weeks.

Idiots

France said more than 4,000 people were fined on the first day of its confinement and ministers branded those breaking the rules as “idiots”.

The strict measures follow the template set by China, as a lockdown imposed in Hubei province where the virus first emerged appeared to have paid off.

China’s death count was steady at 3,248, according to an AFP tally.

Europe now accounts for more than half of the world’s fatalities linked to Covid-19.

Accurate figures are difficult to come by, however, as many of those who die suffer from other illnesses and infection rates are uncertain because of a lack of testing in many countries.

The shadow of the virus is lengthening across Africa and the Middle East too.

Gabon confirmed sub-Saharan Africa’s second known death on Friday, with reported cases across Africa standing at more than 900 and rising fast.

In Iran, both supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani promised the country would overcome the outbreak – but still refused to join the rest of the world in imposing heavy restrictions.

The pandemic has sparked fears of a global recession, battering the world’s stock markets and prompting governments to push huge spending plans to limit the damage.

The central banks of the United States, Japan, Britain, Canada and Switzerland joined forces on Friday in a new bid to keep money pumping through the world economy.

In the United States, senators began negotiations over a US$1 trillion emergency stimulus package to help Americans ravaged by the virus outbreak.

The US package – coupled with a European Central Bank plan to buy €750 billion in bonds – saw stock markets across Asia and Europe rebound in Friday trading, but Wall Street finished sharply lower.

The global sporting calendar, shredded by the pandemic, still has one major event coming up that has not yet been called off – the Olympic Games, set to take place in Japan in the summer.

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