Southern Europe strains under pandemic as global toll passes 10,000

Southern Europe is buckling under the strain of the coronavirus pandemic, with patients filling the wards of hospitals in Spain and Italy as the global death toll passed 10,000 people.

The World Health Organisation noted the dramatic speed of the virus’s spread, saying: “It took over three months to reach the first 10,000 confirmed cases, and only 12 days to reach the next 100,000.”

The WHO released new protocols to help countries identify the extent of Covid-19 infection among their populations, which age groups are most affected and the percentage of people who are infected without symptoms.

Italy recorded its highest day-to-day rise in the number of deaths on Friday, at 627, and in Bergamo, the epicentre in Italy, cemeteries were overwhelmed. Video from inside the city’s main hospital showed patients lined up in a narrow ward, struggling for breath as doctors and nurses moved from one beeping machine to the next.

Pallbearers outside a cemetery in Bergamo
Pallbearers outside a cemetery in Bergamo

Wuhan, the city in China where the outbreak began, offered a ray of hope with no new infections reported for a third day in a row and only 39 cases reported nationwide — all of them brought from the outside, the government said.

The effects of a global economy grinding to a halt were also taking a toll, and the UN chief warned of a looming global recession “perhaps of record dimensions”.

In a measure of how the fortunes of East and West have shifted, a Chinese Red Cross official heading an aid delegation to Milan castigated Italians for failing to take their national lockdown seriously.

Sun Shuopeng said he was shocked to see so many people walking around, using public transport and eating out in hotels, adding: “All people should be staying at home in quarantine.”

China also sent medical equipment to the Czech capital Prague.

Firefighters unload a plane in Prague
Firefighters unload a plane in Prague

In the US, California’s governor expanded restrictions on non-essential movement for all 40 million residents, and the Trump administration warned Americans abroad to return home or risk spending an “indefinite” period away.

Globally, governments are trying to balance locking down residents with the need to keep food, medicine and other essentials flowing.

French President Emmanuel Macron urged employees to keep working in supermarkets, production sites and other necessary businesses amid stringent movement restrictions.

“We need to keep the country running,” he said.

Worldwide, the death toll from Covid-19 passed 10,000 and infections exceeded 244,000, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally.

Italy recorded its highest day-to-day rise in the number of deaths on Friday, at 627, with 5,986 more cases. That brings the official total of new deaths to 4,032 and infections to 47,021.

Spanish health minister Salvador Illa said the army will help set up a field hospital of 5,500 beds and intensive care units inside a convention centre in Madrid. Health workers also have begun outfitting hotels as makeshift wards after authorities said 1,002 people had died in the country while infections have risen by 16% in 24 hours to reach 19,980.

The royal palace in Madrid
The royal palace in Madrid

More than 86,000 people have recovered, mostly in China, but the pace is much slower than the spread of the virus. Recovery takes two weeks or so for mild cases but can be up to six weeks for those that turn serious, according to the WHO.

Iran’s official toll is rising quickly as well amid fears it is under-reporting cases. Tehran accused the US of helping spread the virus by retaining sanctions that prevent it importing desperately needed medicine and medical equipment.

Nations are imposing ever-stricter border controls and lockdowns to keep people at home and keep outsiders away.

Italy was the first to act in Europe, and — despite the criticism from the Chinese official — other leaders held up Italians as an example to encourage their own citizens to endure far-reaching restrictions. Austria and Germany warned that they would continue at least until Easter.

The Trump administration upgraded its warning to Americans against all international travel, and the State Department announced new restrictions on issuing passports to US citizens.

For California’s 40 million residents, governor Gavin Newsom expanded restrictions on non-essential movement outside of homes, saying it was necessary to control the spread of the virus, which was threatening to overwhelm California’s medical system.

The US Army prepared mobile military hospitals for deployment in major cities, and motorists waited in long queues for nurses to swab their nostrils at new drive-through testing sites. New York City is rapidly becoming a US epicentre, with more than 4,000 cases.

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