MADRID/BEIJING – 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 II.
“We have never lived through anything like this,” Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez told a parliament chamber nearly empty with more than 90 percent 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.”
There was particular alarm in Italy, which has experienced an unusually high death rate — nearly 3,000 from 35,713 cases. It has called on student and retired doctors to help an overwhelmed health service.
On Wednesday, Italy reported 475 new deaths, the biggest increase since the outbreak started and the highest one-day total posted by any nation.
France also reported a spike in deaths — rising by 89, or 51 percent, to a total of 264 in 24 hours.
Iran reported its single biggest jump in fatalities from the coronavirus as another 147 people died, raising the country’s overall death toll to 1,135.
The nearly 15 percent spike in deaths — amid a total of 17,361 confirmed cases in Iran — marks the biggest 24-hour rise in fatalities since Iranian officials first acknowledged infections of the virus in mid-February.
Even as the number of cases grows, food markets were still packed with shoppers and highways were crowded as families traveled ahead of the Persian New Year, Nowruz, on Friday.
Deputy Health Minister Alireza Raisi urged the public to avoid travel and crowds, telling Iranians the days ahead represented two “golden weeks” to try curb the virus.
For weeks, officials implored clerics to shut down crowded Shiite shrines to halt the spread of the virus. The government was only able to close them this week.
Sub-Saharan Africa recorded its first COVID-19 death, a high-ranking politician in Burkina Faso.
“Africa should wake up,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news conference in Geneva on Wednesday, pointing out that “in other countries, we have seen how the virus actually accelerates after a certain tipping point.”
Africa has lagged behind the global curve for coronavirus infections and deaths, but in the past few days has seen a significant rise in cases.
Experts have repeatedly warned about the perils for the continent, given its weak health infrastructure, poverty, conflicts, poor sanitation and urban crowding.
Medical authorities in the poor Sahel state of Burkina Faso announced Wednesday that the number of infections there had risen by seven to 27 — and that one of them, a 62-year-old diabetic woman, had died overnight.
The country’s main opposition party, the Union for Progress and Change, said the victim was one of its lawmakers, Rose-Marie Compaore, the first vice president of parliament.
South Africa, the continent’s most industrialized economy, reported a more than one-third jump in cases, with 31 new infections bringing its tally to 116.
Nearby Zambia announced its first two confirmed cases — a couple who returned to Lusaka from a 10-day vacation in France.
Around the world, rich and poor alike saw lives turned upside down as events were canceled, shops stripped, workplaces emptied, streets deserted, schools shut and travel minimized.
“Cleanliness is important, but here it’s not easy,” said Marcelle Diatta, a 41-year-old mother of four in Senegal, where announcements rang from loudspeakers urging people to wash hands but water was often cut off in her suburb.
The crisis has created a wave of solidarity in some countries, with neighbors, families and colleagues coming together to look after the most needy, including dropping supplies at the doors of those forced to stay inside.
Around Spain, applause and the banging of pots ring out in evenings at 8 p.m. as self-isolating neighbors express gratitude to health services. In several countries, stores began reserving special times for elderly shoppers to help keep the most vulnerable away from those who might infect them.
The United States, which closed its border with Canada except for essential travel, was sending its two military hospital ships — Comfort and Mercy — to New York’s harbor and the West Coast, while the Swedish military is setting up a field hospital near Stockholm.
U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart said on Wednesday he had tested positive for the coronavirus, becoming the first member of Congress known to have contracted the virus.
Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican, said he has been self-quarantining in Washington since Friday and had not returned home to South Florida because his wife’s pre-existing conditions put her at exceptionally high risk.
U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday the country was on wartime footing and invoked special powers through the Defense Production Act to rapidly expand manufacturing of masks and protective equipment in short supply.
Spooked by a seemingly inevitable global recession, rich nations are unleashing billions of dollars in stimulus to bolster economies, aid health services, provide loans to tottering businesses and help individuals with mortgages and other routine payments.
Extra cash from governments and central banks failed to calm markets: Stocks and oil prices reeled again, with European shares down nearly 5 percent to approach seven-year lows and major U.S. indexes off by 9 percent and down 30 percent from highs reached last month.
Taking their cue from the waning of the coronavirus in China, where it emerged late last year, optimists predict a bounce back once the epidemic also passes its peak elsewhere — hoped to be within months.
Pessimists are factoring in the possibility of recurring outbreaks and years of pain, some even whispering comparisons with the Great Depression of the 1930s.
On the ground, millions of workers fear for their jobs.
In the airline industry, tens of thousands have already been laid off or put on unpaid leave. The U.S. state of Nevada, home to the casinos of Las Vegas, effectively shut its entire leisure industry overnight. The sector employs 355,000 people — a quarter of all jobs in the state.
In China, the world’s biggest economy after the United States, the jobless rate rose to 6.2 percent in February, the highest since records began, and up from 5.2 percent in December.
The majority of Chinese businesses and factories — apart from the original epicenter in Hubei province — have reopened, but it is unclear how many workers and staff have actually returned.
The crisis has exacerbated some long-running geopolitical frictions. A European Union document accused Russian media of stoking panic in the West via misinformation over the disease, while China withdrew credentials of American journalists at three U.S. newspapers in a row in part over coverage of the coronavirus.
Among the latest cultural events to be canceled was the 50th anniversary of Britain’s Glastonbury music festival.
With most major sports events now canceled, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was under increasing pressure to reconsider the summer Games in Japan.
Several athletes, including reigning Olympic pole vault champion Katerina Stefanidi, said athletes’ health was at risk as they juggled training with coronavirus shutdowns.
“We all want Tokyo to happen but what is the Plan B if it does not happen?” Stefanidi said.