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Coronavirus infections near 500,000; Europe's healthcare systems buckle

Spain has converted hotels into makeshift hospitals and turned an ice rink in Madrid into a temporary morgue


Medical personnel help each other suit up at a federal COVID-19 drive-thru testing site.
Medical personnel help each other suit up at a federal COVID-19 drive-thru testing site.

Worldwide infections from the new were set to top half a million people on Thursday as both Italy and the United States appeared poised to surpass China, where the pandemic began.

Health care systems in Europe and New York buckled under the weight of caring for seriously ill victims as officials desperately searched for enough ventilators to keep them alive.

Faced with the exponential spread of the pandemic, the US Senate passed a USD 2.2 trillion economic rescue package steering aid to businesses, workers and health care systems. Millions of Americans hoped the measure would give them a lifeline as they lost jobs, income and child care due to the social-distancing rules needed to slow the spread of the virus.

At least 1.5 billion people are now under severe travel restrictions. But the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, scolded world leaders for wasting precious time in the fight against the virus that has already killed more than 21,000 people, thrown millions out of work and ravaged the world economy.

He called it public enemy No. 1.

The time to act was actually more than a month ago or two months ago, he said. We squandered the first window of opportunity ... this is a second opportunity, which we should not squander and do everything to suppress and control this virus."

In the United States, where virus deaths passed 1,050 and some 70,000 people were infected, a fierce political battle raged between those demanding urgent action for a months-long siege against the pandemic, like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and President Donald Trump.

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Trump has expressed hope churches could return to normal by Easter, only 17 days away, and grumbled that our country wasn't built to be shut down apparently concerned that the outbreak's devastating effects on financial markets and employment will harm his reelection chances.

Democrats say Trump is prioritizing the economy over the health and safety of Americans.

"I'd like to say, let's get back to work next Friday, said Joe Biden, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. That'd be wonderful. But it can't be arbitrary.

New York has emerged as a global virus hotspot and the governor says infections are doubling nearly every few days. The city's convention center is being turned into a temporary hospital and the state has hit 280 deaths, according to a count by Johns Hopkins University.

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In a preview of what might be ahead for the United States, Spain has converted hotels into makeshift hospitals and turned an ice rink in Madrid into a temporary morgue. The curve of infections has not slowed in Spain, which now has more than 3,600 deaths, second only to Italy's death toll of 7,503.

We are collapsing," said Lidia Perera, a nurse who works at Madrid's Hospital de la Paz. We need more workers.

She said watching patients die alone is killing all of us inside.

Physically this is extremely complicated, but psychologically it is appalling, said colleague Patricia Nez, a nurse who is recovering from being infected herself.

In Italy, doctors and nurses have been begging the government daily to provide more masks, gloves and goggles and urged the public to understand how important onerous social distancing measures really are. Scientists say stopping just one person from getting the virus means scores of will not become infected down the road.

Please don't leave us alone. Help us help you," Dr. Francesca De Gennaro, who heads a small medical clinic in Italy's hard-hit Bergamo region, wrote in an open letter.

ALSO READ: US Senate offers $58 bn aid to airlines as they struggle to stay afloat

European Union leaders were convening Thursday for their third summit in three weeks as they battled to contain the spread of the and manage the havoc the disease is wreaking on their 27 economies.

As the number of deaths in Europe soared over 12,000, Spain prolonged a state of emergency that will allow it to impose broader lockdowns while French President Emmanuel Macron launched Operation Resilience, a military-backed response to combat the pandemic.

France began evacuating infected citizens from the northeastern hotspot of Alsace using a special medicalized high-speed train that its health minister called a first in Europe.

Around 20 patients were being taken from Strasbourg to hospitals in the Pays-de-la-Loire and other regions.

Britain ordered 10,000 ventilators to grapple with the COVID-19 crisis, working with engineers from Dyson. The government wants to increase its ventilators from 8,000 to 30,000.

For most people, the causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

So far, more than 115,000 people have recovered from the virus, and health care experts say the key to fighting it is to flatten the curve slow the spread of the outbreak so that hospitals aren't overwhelmed with seriously ill patients all at once. Slowing the rate of infections will also cut the eventual death rate.

China's cases have slowed, with only 67 new cases reported, all recent arrivals.

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The leaders of the Group of 20 largest economies were holding a special video conference to better coordinate a response to the pandemic, amid criticism that the world's wealthiest countries have not taken cohesive action.

The conference was being chaired by Saudi Arabia's King Salman.

As the virus spreads into new territories, many countries were taking drastic measures.

As cases start to rise in Russia, President Vladimir Putin ordered the military in to help. The government announced it would halt all flights starting Friday and will have troops build 16 new medical centers to treat virus victims by mid-May.

Russia says it has 658 cases, but experts say those figures underreport the crisis there and may be due to the lack of testing.

London hospitals facing 'tsunami' of virus patients: NHS official

Hospitals in the British capital are being overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients, the head of an organisation representing bosses in the state-run National Health Service said on Thursday.

The chief executive of NHS Providers, Chris Hopson, told BBC radio that London hospitals had seen an "explosion of demand... in seriously ill patients", likening it to a "continuous tsunami".

A total of 9,529 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in the UK as of Wednesday morning, an increase of 1,452 over Tuesday's official figure, according to UK's Department of Health and Social Care.

Britain is ramping up the rate of tests for COVID-19, said Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for England Professor Chris Whitty.

Officials are working to increase the number of tests that can be conducted by Public Health England and the NHS (National Health Service) to 25,000 a day, according to a previous statement by the government.

From Tuesday, more than 15 million face masks have been delivered to local hospitals across the country, said the Department of Health and Social Care.

Britain's Indian-origin Home Secretary Priti Patel has issued an over two-month extension on visas to foreign nationals who were stranded in the UK due to COVID-19 related travel bans imposed by several countries, including India.

The announcement, made on Tuesday, came as a relief for Indian nationals, including tourists, professionals and students, who were inundating the social media channels of the Indian High Commission in London with queries about their expired or soon to be expiring visas.

Like many foreign nationals, the Indian citizens also found themselves unable to return home amid the coronavirus pandemic due to flight cancellations and border restrictions.

Giving them a grace period until May 31, Patel said she wanted to give people peace of mind that no enforcement action will be taken against anyone caught up due to the current stringent travel restrictions.

"The UK continues to put the health and wellbeing of people first and nobody will be punished for circumstances outside of their control. By extending people's visas, we are giving people peace of mind and also ensuring that those in vital services can continue their work," the senior UK Cabinet minister said.

First Published: Thu, March 26 2020. 17:15 IST