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Global emergency efforts ramp up as pandemic deaths soar

AFP  |  Rome 

Global emergency efforts to slow the coronavirus pandemic ramped up on Monday with more governments imposing extraordinary lockdowns, as the death toll topped 15,000 and more than one billion people were confined to their homes.

From Germany banning even small gatherings, Italy barring travel, New Zealand announcing a new lockdown and Hong Kong shutting its borders to non-residents, the new round of containment efforts highlighted a deepening sense of panic around the world.

According to an AFP tally, some 1.7 billion people globally have now been asked to stay home in line with mandatory or recommended measures rolled out by governments scrambling to slow the tide of the deadly pandemic.

And with major cultural and sporting already wiped off the calendar, this year's Tokyo Olympics may be in peril. There are mounting calls to postpone the event and Japan's prime minister admitted for the first time a delay could be "inevitable".

Markets on both sides of the Atlantic were hammered again on Monday and the virus continued to wreak havoc on the global economy, spurring fears of a global fallout not seen since the Great Depression.

The death toll from the virus surged to more than 15,000, with over 340,000 infections, according to an AFP tally on Monday, with Europe the new epicentre of the outbreak that first emerged in China late last year.

Italy's world-worst toll from the pandemic approached 5,500 with another 651 deaths reported on Sunday.

Though still high, the daily toll was a slight dip from the previous count, offering a sliver of hope the country may finally be turning a corner.

European nations continued to choke people's movement, with Greece the latest nation to follow Italy, Spain and France in imposing a nationwide lockdown.

City streets in Greece normally packed with Monday morning traffic were suddenly deserted as residents stayed inside -- leaving the house only for essential trips.

"It's a bit of a hassle... but these measures are necessary and we'll get used to them," said Athens resident Maria Bourras, who leaves her house regularly to walk her dog.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday announced a ban on gatherings of more than two people, before putting herself in quarantine after learning she had been treated by an infected doctor.

Her office said on Monday the 65-year-old was "doing well" and awaiting coronavirus test results.

Italy banned travel and shut down a range of industries and businesses on Monday, a new wave of restrictions designed to finally slow the rate of deaths and infections.

Meanwhile, Spain readied to extend its state of emergency, which bars people from leaving home unless absolutely essential, until April 11.

It reported another spike in fatalities on Monday, bringing its total to 2,182 dead -- the third highest in the world after Italy and China.

Residents across France, where the death toll jumped to 674, also remained shut in their homes and the government said lockdown measures could extend past the end of March.

Meanwhile Britain inched towards similar tough measures, with the government under pressure to clamp down after crowds flocked to holiday hotspots and beaches at the weekend, defying social distancing recommendations.

Across the Atlantic, US President Donald Trump ordered thousands of emergency hospital beds to be set up at coronavirus hotspots as a trillion-dollar economic rescue package crashed in the Senate.

"We're at war, in a true sense we're at war," Trump said.

More than a third of Americans were under various forms of lockdown in the country, including in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, but the number of infections nationally has continued to climb.

Highlighting the desperation in the world's biggest economy, the mayor of New York said his city was just 10 days away from running out of ventilators.

Markets reeled after the mega rescue package collapsed, sending bourses in Asia, Europe and the US on a downward spiral again.

The economic fallout from the virus has sparked fears of a global slump not seen for decades.

"This is the biggest economic shock our nation has faced in generations," Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said as he warned the pandemic could lead to a crisis akin to the 1930s Great Depression.

As the pandemic overwhelms hospitals, doctors are having to quickly prioritise patients based on their chances of survival, inflicting a huge moral burden.

"We go into medicine to heal people. Not to make choices about who can live," said Philippe Devos, an anaesthesiologist in Belgium.

The virus emerged in China in December, after first being detected at a market that sold wild animals for human consumption in the central city of Wuhan.

China has since sought to sow doubts over whether the virus began in Wuhan, while portraying itself as a saviour in the global fight and a role model for quarantines.

On Monday it reported no new local cases of the virus, while life slowly started returning to normal in Wuhan with people heading back to work and public transport resuming.

But there are fears across Asia of "imported" cases from Europe and other hotspots.

New Zealand has yet to be hit hard but on Monday announced a four-week lockdown to prevent a Europe-style crisis, with Colombia set to follow suit on Wednesday.

Hong Kong, which had largely avoided the virus in the first wave despite being so close to the Chinese mainland, said it would stop all non-residents from entering.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Mon, March 23 2020. 21:30 IST