Despite lockdowns cases keep rising, straining hospitals
BERLIN — Streets, squares and highways were deserted in large parts of the world Saturday, March 21 as curfews and lockdowns multiplied in the face of a rapidly advancing virus that is severely straining many health systems.
Three American states with a combined population of 70 million are moving to restrict residents to their homes to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. California started Friday and New York and Illinois were to follow this weekend. Connecticut and Oregon were preparing to do the same.
Almost a week into tight restrictions on free movement and the closure of most shops in Spain, police intensified their efforts to enforce confinement rules with fines and extra patrols to stop city-dwellers with second homes in the country from leaving town for the weekend.
Spain now has the third-highest number of infections worldwide. On Saturday it reported almost 5,000 new cases in the past day, bringing the total to nearly 25,000. The death toll rose to 1,326, up from 1,002 Friday.
As hospitals and nursing homes buckled under the burden of the virus outbreak, Spanish health authorities have acknowledged that some intensive care units in the hardest-hit areas are close to their limit, and warned that they expect infections to continue to rise before measures to reverse the trend have an effect.
The army was building a field hospital with 5,500 beds in a convention center in Madrid, where hotels are also being turned into wards for virus patients without serious breathing problems.
In Germany, once-bustling outdoor plazas fell quiet in Bavaria after it became the first of the country’s states to tell people to stay home, except to go to work, buy food, visit the doctor or exercise. Police reported fewer people breaching the curfew than in previous nights.
Colombia became the latest South American country to announce a lockdown, and Sri Lanka closed all expressways for a weekend curfew.
The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 recorded in Africa rose above 1,000 Saturday, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At least 40 of Africa’s 54 countries now have cases.
More than 275,000 cases have been confirmed globally, including over 11,000 deaths, according to a running tally by Johns Hopkins University. At least 88,000 people have recovered.
For most people, the new virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority recover.
Officials in many countries are desperate to prevent — or at least limit — a repeat of what has happened in China and southern Europe. The coronavirus outbreak overwhelmed medical services in the central Chinese city of Wuhan earlier this year and now is pushing them to the limit in Italy, Spain and France.
Italy’s surging case numbers have frustrated health officials. Statements by authorities earlier on in the outbreak had raised hopes that new infections might soon start dropping off. But on Friday, officials reported further record increases, with 5,986 new cases and 627 new deaths. The country, which has Europe’s largest outbreak, now has at least 47,021 cases and 4,032 dead.
On Saturday, tighter rules closing down parks and playgrounds nationwide took effect, in a desperate bid to discourage Italians from congregating outdoors.
Germany’s southwestern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg on Saturday offered to take in patients from the neighboring French region of Alsace that’s struggling with a surge of infections overwhelming hospitals.
Britain still lags behind Italy, Spain and France in the spread of the virus, but the country’s overstretched health system is creaking. The state-funded National Health Service has about 4,000 critical-care beds and some 5,000 ventilators, and officials say that’s far fewer than will be needed as the number of cases spikes in the coming weeks. Britain, which has recorded 3,983 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 177 deaths, has already asked 65,000 retired nurses and doctors to return to work.
Workers near Moscow are rushing to build a clinic to treat hundreds of coronavirus patients as Russia prepares for a wave of infections. Placards in the style of Soviet propaganda posters have been erected near the site, with one showing Mayor Sergei Sobyanin pointing at the viewer and the slogan “Builders — Minutes count!”
China has been sending aid to several European countries, promoting its expertise and experience gained from fighting the outbreak at home. An Air China flight carrying 18 tons of medical supplies including hundreds of thousands of surgical and protection masks landed in the Greek capital, Athens, Saturday morning.
As the pandemic has eased in Asia, China and other parts of the region are now trying to avoid importing cases from Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere.
China reported Saturday that its mainland had no new home-grown cases of the disease for the third straight day, but 41 imported ones in the previous 24-hour period.
Restrictions on movement are being eased gradually in China as it tries to restart the economy without bringing back the disease. Officials in Wuhan are permitting supermarkets, convenience stores and some other retail businesses to reopen from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. if they are in areas with no confirmed or suspected cases.
In the U.S., the restrictions on movement take effect Saturday in Illinois and Sunday in New York. All workers in nonessential businesses will be required to stay home and gatherings of any size are banned in New York. Exceptions will be made for important errands, such as buying groceries and medicine, and for exercise.
The lockdowns in California and other states sent stock markets tumbling again. Wall Street had its worst week since the 2008 financial crisis, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average falling more than 900 points and down 17% for the week.
Car maker BMW said it would shut down a huge manufacturing complex in South Carolina from April 3 to 19 and Nissan said it would suspend vehicle production at its two Mexican assembly plants from next Wednesday through April 14. Auto production has resumed in China, but only partially.
Colombian President Iván Duque announced Friday night that everyone would be required to isolate in their homes for three weeks starting Tuesday. The capital, Bogota, began its own lockdown Friday, leaving the city’s usually traffic-filled streets largely empty.
Colombia has 158 confirmed cases, and officials are hoping that drastic measures now will limit the number of new cases in the weeks ahead. Peru, Ecuador and Venezuela already are in lockdown.
But there was concern about the possible unwanted side-effects that extended curfews around the world might have, including isolation of elderly persons and increased instances of domestic violence.
“The authorities know or should know that confinement measures will also cause casualties, among women and children,” Agnes Callamard, a U.N. appointed human rights expert, said on Twitter.
“An emergency plan to protect them is needed.”