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US and Spanish deaths surge as world virus toll breaks 50,000

03 April 2020, MVT 20:11
Paramedics transport a patient wearing a face mask to the emergency room entrance of the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York, on April 2, 2020. PHOTO: AFP
03 April 2020, MVT 20:11

The number of confirmed coronavirus deaths accelerated past 50,000 on Friday as the United States, Spain and Britain grappled with their highest tolls yet and the world economy took a massive hit.

The threat posed by the pandemic has never been more stark. Experts warn that the more than one million cases of COVID-19 disease confirmed globally are probably just a small proportion of total infections, as testing is not widely available.

The United States already accounts for around a quarter of confirmed cases, but Europe is far from being out of danger -- Spain reported more than 900 deaths in 24 hours on Friday, for the second day running.

While Italy still leads the world in fatalities, France, Belgium and Britain have also been hard hit. The UK government opened a 4,000-bed field hospital on Friday after a one-day toll of 569.

The public health battle waged across the world ebbed and flowed on Friday, with Germany saying the rate of new infections is slowing, but Asian city-state Singapore confirming it would close schools and workplaces to fend off a possible renewed upsurge in cases.  

- 'Worst moment of my life' -

The virus has now killed more 10,000 people across Spain, but it spared 29-year-old Javier Lara, who has just returned home after being treated in an overburdened intensive care unit and told AFP of his suffering.

"I was panicking that my daughter would get infected. When I started showing symptoms, I said I wouldn't hold her or go near her, or change her nappies," he said, describing his fear for his eight-week-old child after facing death at the "worst moment in his life". 

The world economy has been pummelled by the virus and the associated lockdowns, with more than half the population of the planet under some kind of stay-at-home order. 

The US economy shed 701,000 jobs last month, its worst since March 2009 in the wake of the global financial crisis, boosting the jobless rate to 4.4 percent for the first time in 45 years.

And the Labor Department admitted it "cannot precisely quantify the effects of the pandemic on the job market in March." 

Things were no better in Europe, where analysts from IHS Markit warned that business activity in the 19-nation eurozone had suffered its worst crunch ever recorded, and the central bank of eurozone member Ireland said its output could be slashed by 8.3 percent this year.

Financial ratings agency Fitch predicted both the US and eurozone economies would shrink this quarter by up to 30 percent and the Asian Development Bank warned on Friday the global economy could take a $4.1 trillion hit -- equivalent to five percent of worldwide output.

- China's 14 'martyrs' -

China's central bank  became the latest to announce special stimulus measures Friday when it cut reserve requirements for smaller banks in order to release around 400 billion yuan ($56 billion) in liquidity.

The outbreak began last year in China, which announced a day of national mourning on Saturday for those who died fighting against the disease. Fourteen deceased frontline workers will be celebrated as "martyrs" of the epidemic.

In India, where more than one billion people are under lockdown, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called on Indians to hold candles and mobile phones aloft for nine minutes on Sunday to dispel the "darkness and uncertainty" of the pandemic.

In the megacity of Mumbai, police barricaded off parts of Dharavi, one of Asia's biggest slums, made world famous by the 2008 film "Slumdog Millionaire".

"We sprayed hydrochloric acid to disinfect these buildings and nearby areas as well," said Vijay Khabale-Patil of Mumbai's city authority.

Mobinuddin Shaikh, 51, who lives opposite a coronavirus patient, said Dharavi's people had largely ignored a 21-day lockdown imposed on March 25, but fears were now mounting.

"We are a family of five," he told AFP. "We use communal toilets or have to get water from public taps. Only God can save us."

Australia took the extreme step of banning the 15,000-strong crews of virus-stricken cruise ships from coming ashore -- dealing the world's teetering tourism industry another blow.

- 'Really scary' -

Even in the world's richest country, the US, healthcare providers are under pressure. New Yorkers like COVID-19 survivor Diana Berrent are donating blood plasma in the hope their hard-won antibodies can be used to treat future victims.

"We can be superheroes," the 45-year-old photographer told AFP. "These are unprecedented, frightening times where everything is beyond our control -- except we as survivors can help."

The virus has chiefly killed the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions, but recent cases of deaths among teenagers and of a six-week-old baby have highlighted dangers for people of all ages.

And in Spain, mothers like 34-year-old Vanesa Muro who gave birth while suffering from COVID-19 are warned not to touch their newborn without wearing gloves and masks. 

"It's hard," she told AFP at her home in Madrid. "He grabs your finger, the poor little thing and holds on to the plastic, not on to you."

The virus has also not spared world leaders.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel left her Berlin home for the first time in almost two weeks on Friday after she was quarantined following contact with an infected doctor, but British premier Boris Johnson was still working in isolation after testing positive.

"In my own case, although I'm feeling better and I have done my seven days of isolation, alas, I still have one of the minor symptoms... a temperature, so in accordance with government advice, I must continue my self-isolation until that symptom itself goes," he said, on Twitter.

Politically, the virus deepened fault lines in the EU, with Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte writing to European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen to demand more ambition and courage from his partners, accusing her of peddling ideas "not worthy of Europe".

Meanwhile, in northeast Nigeria, aid workers say the virus could rampage through camps for 1.8 million people displaced by a decade-long Boko Haram insurgency.

"There is no health system to contain that virus... it will spread like wildfire and affect all involved," said one UN worker. "It is really scary."

Madrid, Spain | AFP

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