Virus deaths pass 10,000 as even California shuts down


SINGAPORE/KUALA LUMPUR/NEW YORK/JAKARTA/HONG KONG: More than 10,000 people have now died in a Covid-19 (coronavirus) pandemic that has swept from China throughout the world, forcing the confinement of tens of millions in their homes.

As the virus has marched westwards, the severity of the outbreaks and the focus of concern has shifted from Asia to Europe, with officials imposing increasingly tough restrictions.

California, among the worst hit state in the United States, has told its 40 million residents to stay at home, the most drastic move yet in the US.

However, the California measures will not be enforced by police unlike in France, Italy, Spain and other European countries where people face fines if they break the rules.

Germany's biggest state Bavaria on Friday became the first region in the country to order a lockdown, imposing "fundamental restrictions" on going out for two weeks.

The strict measures follow the template set by China, as a lockdown imposed in Hubei province where the novel coronavirus first emerged appears to have paid off.

The country is now reporting only a handful of new infections each day, all of them apparently from overseas visitors.

Italy is battling the most deadly outbreak on the planet with 3,405 deaths, followed by China with 3,248 and Iran with 1,433, according to an AFP tally of official data.

Europe now accounts for half of the 10,000 fatalities linked to the Covid-19 disease around the world.

However, accurate figures are difficult to come by as many of those who die are suffering from other illnesses and infection rates are uncertain because of a lack of testing in many countries.

The pandemic has sparked fears of a global recession, battering the world's stock markets and prompting governments to push huge spending plans to limit the damage.

The central banks of the United States, Japan Britain, Canada and Switzerland joined forces on Friday to announce a new effort to keep dollars pumping through the world economy.

The US meanwhile is showing signs that it is ramping up efforts on all fronts, fast-tracking antimalarial drugs for use against the virus, halting all routine visa services at embassies and promising a US$1 trillion emergency relief package.

The US package -- coupled with a European Central Bank plan to buy 750 billion euros in bonds -- saw stock markets across Asia and Europe rebound in Friday trading but US exchanges had a mixed morning.

US President Donald Trump, who has come under fire for his response to the crisis, said on Thursday that US officials would make antimalarials chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine available "almost immediately".

Experts are divided over whether the drugs are suitable though, having undergone only the briefest of clinical trials.

Trump also sparked an international row after he accused the Chinese of being secretive over the initial spread and severity of the virus, saying the world was now "paying a big price".

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang hit back, saying "some people" were trying to "stigmatise" China's fight against the virus.

"This approach ignores the great sacrifice made by the Chinese people to safeguard the health and safety of humankind" he said.

Across Europe, governments continued to rigorously enforce lockdown measures as the continent's most celebrated boulevards and squares remained silent and empty even as warmer spring weather arrived.

France announced more than 4,000 people were fined on the first day of its confinement and ministers branded those breaking the rules as "idiots".

France and Italy have both said they are likely extend the confinement beyond the initial periods, and British schools will close indefinitely on Friday.

As Europeans battle to cope with the isolation, technology companies have begun to hint at the strain being put on their systems.

Both Netflix and YouTube, which say they have experienced a surge in demand since lockdowns began, have promised to reduce the default image quality of streaming video in Europe to ease pressure on the internet.

However, the restrictions are bringing some communities closer together.

In sparsely populated rural Spain -- a country that ranks fourth in the world for coronavirus infections -- neighbours are pulling together to help the old and the vulnerable.

Sergio Caminero, 30, who lives in Lovingos, a tiny hamlet north of Madrid, went to pick up some shopping for an elderly neighbour.

"She's older and is quite frightened and tense," he said.

The shadow of the virus is lengthening across Africa and the Middle East too.

Gabon confirmed sub-Saharan Africa's second known death on Friday, with the total of reported cases across Africa standing at 881 and rising fast after lagging other continents.

In Iran, both supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani promised the country would overcome the outbreak -- but still refused to join the rest of the world in imposing heavy restrictions.

Jordan, however, became the latest nation to adopt confinement measures, announcing an indefinite curfew after saying people had ignored previous directives.

The global sporting calendar, shredded by the spread of the pandemic, still has one major event coming up that has not yet been called off -- the Olympic Games, set to take place in Japan in the summer.

Japan Olympic Committee member Kaori Yamaguchi broke ranks with the official line, telling the Nikkei newspaper: "It should be postponed under the current situation where athletes are not well prepared." - AFP
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