World / Science & Health

Coronavirus pandemic spreads across West, with Italy deaths topping China's

AP, AFP-JIJI, Reuters

Italy’s deaths from the coronavirus pandemic eclipsed China’s on Thursday as the scourge extended its march across the West, where the United States and other countries increasingly enlisted the military to prepare for an onslaught of patients and California’s governor ordered people in the most-populous U.S. state to stay home.

The U.S. Army prepared mobile military hospitals for deployment in major cities. In Madrid, Spain, a four-star hotel was turned into a hospital. Long lines of motorists waited for nurses to swab their nostrils at new U.S. drive-thru testing sites.

The virus has infected at least one European head of state: Monaco’s 62-year-old Prince Albert II, who continued to work from his office. And it appeared to be opening an alarming new front in Africa, where health care in many countries is already in sorry shape.

At the United Nations, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the world is “at war with a virus” and warned that “a global recession, perhaps of record dimensions, is a near certainty.”

“If we let the virus spread like wildfire — especially in the most vulnerable regions of the world — it would kill millions of people,” he said.

Italy, with 60 million citizens, has recorded 3,405 deaths, or roughly 150 more than in China, a country with a population over 20 times larger. As Italy reached its bleak milestone, China is seeing signs of hope. Wuhan, the city where the new virus emerged three months ago, had no new infections for a second day Friday, a sign its draconian lockdowns had worked.

Health authorities cited a variety of reasons for Italy’s high toll, key among them its large population of elderly, who are particularly susceptible to serious complications from the virus. Italy has the world’s second-oldest population, and the vast majority of its dead — 87 percent — were over 70.

Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit, a virologist at Germany’s Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine, offered another reason for Italy’s high death rate: “That’s what happens when the health system collapses.”

In a measure of how the fortunes of East and West have shifted, New York officials were sent to China to buy more ventilators. And in Italy, the leader of a delegation from the Chinese Red Cross openly castigated Italians for failing to take the national lockdown seriously.

On a visit to the hard-hit city of Milan, Sun Shuopeng said he was shocked to see so many people walking around, using public transportation and eating out in hotels.

“Right now we need to stop all economic activity, and we need to stop the mobility of people,” he said. “All people should be staying at home in quarantine.”

Worldwide the death toll surpassed 10,000 and infections topped 240,000, including 86,000 people who have recovered.

Brazil, on Thursday announced it was closing its land borders to nearly all its neighbors to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro state also said it would bar people from its world-famous beaches including Copacabana and Ipanema.

Brazil said its two-week border closure would affect all neighboring countries, with the exception of Uruguay to the south. It shut its border with Venezuela on Tuesday.

Latin America’s largest country, with a population of 210 million, Brazil has so far registered 621 cases of the coronavirus, with six deaths.

Mexico and Peru reported their first virus deaths, and Argentina said the country would go on a “preventative and compulsory” lockdown from Friday until March 31 in an effort to contain the virus.

Chile, rocked by months of social protests, unveiled an $11.75 billion economic stimulus package to cope with the effects of the virus on the giant copper producer, but also announced it was postponing a referendum on changing its constitution.

In the U.S., where deaths reached at least 205, and infections climbed past 14,000, Army officials announced plans to deploy two hospitals, probably to Seattle and New York City. Washington state had the highest death toll, 74.

President Donald Trump said earlier this week that he would send a Navy hospital ship to the West Coast as well as one to New York City, which is rapidly becoming a U.S. epicenter, with more than 4,000 cases.

The White House said Thursday that Trump will cancel an in-person meeting of G7 leaders at Camp David in June because of the coronavirus and will hold a videoconference instead.

Trump held a videoconference with the leaders of the world’s major industrialized countries earlier this week and plans to repeat that in April, May and June, when the physical meeting at the presidential retreat in Maryland was scheduled to take place.

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow, who also serves as Trump’s G7 “sherpa,” has informed his counterparts about the move.

“In order for each country to focus all of its resources on responding to the health and economic challenges of COVID-19 and at President Trump’s direction, National Economic Council Director and U.S. Sherpa for the 2020 G7 Larry Kudlow has informed his Sherpa colleagues that the G7 Leaders’ Summit the U.S. was set to host in June at Camp David will now be done by video-teleconference,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a written statement.

Damage to the world’s largest economy kept increasing, with the number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits surging by 70,000 last week. On Wall Street, though, stocks rose modestly amid optimism over efforts by the Federal Reserve and other central banks to shore up the economy. The Dow Jones Industrial Average gained almost 200 points, or 1 percent.

Congress is weighing a proposed $1 trillion emergency package that would dispense relief checks to households in as many as two rounds, the first of which would consist of payments of $1,000 per adult and $500 for each child.

Around the country, governors and mayors sounded increasingly alarmed and took ever more drastic measures to fend off the crisis.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom late Thursday expanded to nearly 40 million people the restrictions he said already applied to about half the state. He said the statewide restriction on non-essential movement outside people’s homes is necessary to control the spread of the virus that threatens to overwhelm California’s medical system.

Newsom earlier in the day issued the dire prediction that 56 percent of California’s population could contract the virus over the next eight weeks.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf ordered the closing of all “non-life-sustaining” businesses in the state, with exceptions for gas stations, grocery stores, pharmacies and takeout restaurant service, and warned that violators could be subject to fines or imprisonment.

At a video conference with Trump, governors complained they were having difficulty obtaining such things as swabs and protective gear for doctors and nurses.

And New York Mayor Bill de Blasio lashed out at the president as “the Herbert Hoover of your generation,” referring to the man who was president when the stock market crashed in 1929 and the Depression set in.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the state does not have enough ventilators for the expected surge of patients in need of help breathing, and needs to acquire thousands before the outbreak overwhelms hospitals.

“Every state is shopping for ventilators. We’re shopping for ventilators. We literally have people in China shopping for ventilators which is one of the largest manufacturers. So this is a major problem,” he said.

A Houston hospital that opened its doors to drive-thru testing quickly saw a line of hundreds of vehicles stretching more than a mile. At a white tent, workers in masks and head-to-toe protective gear swabbed motorists. Petra Sanchez waited to find out whether she had the virus.

“I have an 80-year-old dad, and I haven’t been around him for the same reason,” she said. “I don’t know what I have.”

The U.S. State Department, meanwhile, warned Americans in the strongest terms yet not to travel abroad under any circumstances.

The British government, criticized as slow to react to the virus, shifted gears and drew up legislation giving itself new powers to detain people and restrict gatherings. The bill is expected to be approved by Parliament next week.

Supermarket chain Sainsbury’s reserved the first hour of shopping for vulnerable customers. Among them was Jim Gibson, 72, of London, who was concerned that the country wasn’t ramping up testing fast enough.

“You can’t go on ignoring World Health Organization guidelines — if they’re wrong, who the hell is right?” he said. “Let’s have no shilly-shallying.”

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe pleaded with people to social distance, even as the crisis pushed them to seek comfort. “When you love someone, you should avoid taking them in your arms,” he said in Parliament.

China for the second day said Friday the locked-down city of Wuhan, where thousands once lay sick or dying in hurriedly constructed hospitals, had no new cases of infections. All 39 new cases recorded nationally were from abroad.

“Today, we have seen the dawn after so many days of hard effort,” said Jiao Yahui, a senior inspector at the National Health Commission, said Thursday. Officials say they will only lift the quarantine of Wuhan after the city goes 14 consecutive days with no new cases.

China is slowly coming back to life, with the government saying about 80 percent of economic activity has been restored, although millions of workers remain stranded by travel bans. Beijing’s tourism industry is still on hold, just as it should be ramping up for the summer season.

China is set to unleash trillions of yuan of fiscal stimulus to revive an economy expected to shrink for the first time in four decades amid the pandemic, while a planned growth target is likely to be cut, according to four policy sources.

The ramped-up spending will aim to spur infrastructure investment, backed by as much as 2.8 trillion yuan ($394 billion) of local government special bonds, said the sources. The national budget deficit ratio could rise to record levels, they added.

The World Health Organization warned that the virus is spreading quickly in Africa, from about five countries a week and a half ago to 35 of the continent’s 54 nations — an “extremely rapid evolution,” said WHO’s Africa chief, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti.

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