World observing Easter under lockdown

World observing Easter under lockdown

Global update: US about to overtake Italy for most deaths, Singapore and India take more steps

Hospital beds are laid out in a chapel inside the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine for a temporary field hospital to deal with coronavirus patients in New York City. (Reuters Photo)
Hospital beds are laid out in a chapel inside the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine for a temporary field hospital to deal with coronavirus patients in New York City. (Reuters Photo)

The United States became the first country to report more than 2,000 coronavirus deaths in a single day, marking a grim milestone as billions around the world celebrated the Easter weekend under lockdown from home.

The global death toll from the virus surged past 103,000, with total cases rising to 1.7 million, of which 501,000 or 29% were in the United States, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

While the US has become the centre of the pandemic that first emerged in China late last year, Europe has so far shouldered the majority of all deaths and infections. However, there were signs of hope that the curve could be starting to flatten in some of the hardest-hit countries.

Numbers out of Madrid own Saturday offered a glimmer of hope, as the 510 new deaths represented a drop in fatalities for the third day in a row.

In France, nearly 1,000 new deaths were confirmed on Friday but the country reported a drop in the number of intensive care patients for a second day running.

Italy, meanwhile, said the number of daily deaths was starting to level off — though the government resisted pressure to lift its lockdown, extending confinement measures until May 3.

With 18,849 dead, Italy has the highest death toll, but it is expected to be overtaken by the United States on Sunday.

But President Donald Trump said that with the US infection trajectory “near the peak” and social distancing working well, he was considering ways to reopen the world’s biggest economy as soon as possible.

He acknowledged the risk of higher death tolls if businesses restart too soon — after the World Health Organization on Friday cautioned countries against lifting lockdown measures too quickly.

“But you know what? Staying at home leads to death also,” Trump added, pointing to the massive economic suffering for millions of Americans.

Empty churches

Easter weekend began in near-empty churches around the world as most Roman Catholic parishioners remained locked in their homes.

More than 4 billion people — over half the world’s population — are confined to their homes from New York to Naples to New Delhi as governments scramble to contain the pandemic’s deadly march.

Pope Francis was due to livestream his Easter Vigil from an empty St Peter’s Basilica later on Saturday, after he presided over an empty Good Friday Service to start the weekend, the most important in the Roman Catholic calendar. (story continues below)

Pope Francis presides over the Way of the Cross (Via Crucis) observance in an empty St Peter’s Square in The Vatican on Good Friday. (AFP Photo)

Across Europe, governments urged citizens to stay home for the weekend, fearing people would flock outdoors to enjoy warm weather or flee to holiday homes.

France deployed some 160,000 gendarmes to patrol busy roads, while Lithuania set up roadblocks to prevent travellers from leaving cities.

And Turkey announced with little warning Friday that a 48-hour lockdown order would be in place in dozens of cities, including Ankara and Istanbul, as its virus death toll crept past 1,000.

Shoppers crowded supermarkets in Istanbul late Friday in a rush to stock up on supplies before the curfew started at midnight.

The World Health Organization has warned that prematurely easing lockdown measures — as has started in central China where to virus first emerged — could spark a dangerous return of the disease.

“Lifting restrictions too quickly could lead to a deadly resurgence,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned on Friday.

Some countries, especially in Asia, are worried about a possible second wave of infections imported from travellers as life creeps back to normal.

But governments are under pressure to strike a balance between keeping people safe and keeping already battered economies stable.

Singapore takes more steps

Singapore closed its beaches, and will make it mandatory for commuters to wear masks on public transport even after the end of the partial lockdown period to further control the spread of the coronavirus.

“Tougher measures” are necessary as safe-distancing measures aren’t being strictly followed, Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong wrote in a Facebook post. The government closed off some areas in parks and nature reserves on Friday.

“In theory, we could keep most places open, so long as safe distancing measures are strictly adhered to,” Wong said on Saturday. “But increasingly we see that this is hard to achieve.”

Singapore has banned social gatherings and shuttered most workplaces until at least May 4 as part of measures to slow the pace of infections. Schools are also closed, and only those providing essential services are allowed to remain open during what it’s calling a “circuit breaker” period.

The government has distributed face masks to each household and will make it compulsory to wear them on public transport even after the partial lockdown is over and buses and trains become crowded again, according to Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan.

The country reported its highest daily increase of infections on Thursday with more than 200 of the 287 new cases linked to foreign worker dormitories, where inhabitants often stay in cramped conditions.

Singapore will set up two floating accommodations to temporarily house healthy foreign workers starting next week. Foreign workers will go through health checks including swab tests before boarding, and the government will arrange for their daily essential needs while a medical facility will be set up nearby on land.

The health ministry confirmed 191 new cases on Saturday, taking the total in the city-state to 2,299. (story continues below)

A woman looks out at a closed public beach at East Coast Park in Singapore after the city-state stepped up its anti-virus precautions on Saturday. (Reuters Photo)

Indian lockdown extended

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has decided to extend the current 21-day lockdown that is scheduled to end on Tuesday, but further details were not available.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said Modi had “taken a correct decision” after consulting with leaders from across the country in a video-conference.

“Today, India’s position is better than many developed countries because we started lockdown early. If it is stopped now, all gains would be lost,” Kejriwal said on Twitter.

The number of coronavirus infections in India rose to 7,447 on Saturday, with New Delhi and Mumbai fast emerging as hotspots. There have been 239 deaths.

Several states had urged Modi to extend the lockdown, even amid rising concerns that the restrictions have put millions of poor people out of work and forced an exodus of migrant workers from cities to villages.

In neighbouring Bangladesh, where the army has been deployed across the country to enforce social distancing, the government on Friday extended its nationwide lockdown by 11 days to April 25. The number of confirmed cases there rose to 482, with 30 deaths.

The Ministry of Public Administration said on Saturday that nobody would be allowed out of their homes from 6pm to 6am, adding that legal action will be taken against those who fail to comply with the orders.

The government has also ordered all shops except drugstores to be shut by 6pm.

Health workers stay put

The Philippines has temporarily barred doctors, nurses and other health workers from leaving for overseas work amid the coronavirus outbreak, a move that irked its top diplomat who pledged to fight the ban.

The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration issued a resolution on April 2 halting the departure of workers in 14 medical professions for the duration of the nation’s state of emergency.

The ban should have been announced weeks ago instead of catching Filipino workers by surprise, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin said on his official Twitter account. Nurses returning to their posts with the UK National Health Service were recently stopped at the Manila airport, he said.

“The fight is not over. We will fight the ban in the cabinet,” Locsin said on Twitter. “We will never surrender our constitutional right to travel and our contractual right to work where there is need for work.”

The Philippines, which sends thousands of medical practitioners to work overseas, seeks to reinforce a healthcare system overwhelmed by the pandemic. There were 4,428 coronavirus cases as of Saturday, with deaths reaching 247. Two dozen doctors have died from Covid-19, according to an estimate of the Private Hospitals Association.

“In the interest of national security, public safety or public health, as may be provided by law,” the government can curtail travel, according to its charter. The Philippines has locked down its main island of 60 million people since mid-March to the end of the month.

Vaccine progress

A vaccine against the coronavirus could be ready by September, according to a scientist leading one of Britain’s most advanced teams.

Sarah Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at Oxford University, told The Times on Saturday that she is “80% confident” the vaccine would work, and could be ready by September.

Experts have warned the public that vaccines typically take years to develop, and one for the coronavirus could take between 12 to 18 months at best.

In the case of the Oxford team, however, “it’s not just a hunch, and as every week goes by we have more data to look at”, Gilbert told the London newspaper.

Gilbert’s team is one of dozens worldwide working on a vaccine and is the most advanced in Britain, she told The Times.

On Saturday the UK reported 917 fatalities, taking the total count to 9,875, and the government has repeatedly pleaded with the public to obey lockdown rules during the long Easter holiday weekend.

As Prime Minister Boris Johnson begins his recovery after a spell in intensive care, Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, warned he expects the number of deaths to increase for “a few weeks” yet.

Second time around

The WHO said on Saturday that it was looking into reports of some Covid-19 patients testing positive again after initially testing negative for the disease while being considered for discharge.

South Korean officials on Friday reported 91 patients thought cleared of the new coronavirus had tested positive again. Jeong Eun-kyeong, director of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told a briefing that the virus may have been “reactivated” rather than the patients being re-infected.

The WHO, asked about the report from Seoul, told Reuters in a brief statement: “We are aware of these reports of individuals who have tested negative for Covid-19 using PCR (polymerase chain reaction) testing and then after some days testing positive again.

“We are closely liaising with our clinical experts and working hard to get more information on those individual cases. It is important to make sure that when samples are collected for testing on suspected patients, procedures are followed properly.”

According to the WHO’s guidelines on clinical management, a patient can be discharged from hospital after two consecutive negative results in a clinically recovered patient at least 24 hours apart, it added.

Based on current studies, there is a period of about two weeks between the onset of symptoms and clinical recovery of patients with mild Covid-19 disease, the agency said.

“We are aware that some patients are PCR positive after they clinically recover, but we need systematic collection of samples from recovered patients to better understand how long they shed live virus,” it said.

South Korean health officials said on Friday that it remains unclear what is behind the trend, with epidemiological investigations still under way.

Russian toll jumps

Russia reported 1,667 new coronavirus cases on Saturday, bringing the national tally of confirmed cases to 13,584. The number of coronavirus-related deaths rose by 12 to 106, the coronavirus crisis response centre said.

Germany reported the smallest increase in coronavirus deaths in 10 days on Saturday and also said the total number of new infections slowed.

However, Chancellor Angela Merkel said progress in defeating the pandemic is “fragile” and it’s too early to relent.

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