US President Donald Trump declared the coronavirus pandemic a national emergency Friday, as deaths spiked across Europe and countries around the world mobilised to slow the spread of a disease that has already infected more than 137,000 people.
While the exponential spread of the virus in Europe, North America and the Middle East has dashed any hopes for a quick containment, dozens of countries have imposed increasingly draconian measures — shutting borders, expanding testing, closing school for tens of millions of children and ordering tens of thousands of businesses to close their doors — to try to face down the disease.
“We will defeat this threat,” Trump said in a White House press conference. “When America is tested, America rises to the occasion.”
Flanked by top health officials and the heads of big medical companies, Trump bragged about the US response, but also went further than he had before in conceding the size of the threat. “The next eight weeks are critical,” he said. “We can learn and we will turn a corner on this virus.”
The emergency decree will open up US$50 billion for state and local governments to respond to the outbreak, said Trump, who also announced new efforts to expand coronavirus testing and gave the secretary of health and human services emergency powers to waive federal regulations to give doctors and hospitals “flexibility” in treating patients.
Still, Trump said the White House and Congress have yet to agree on a sweeping aid package with sick pay, free testing and other resources, saying he doesn’t believe House Democrats are “giving enough.” The governors of six states — Florida, Iowa, Louisiana, New York, Rhode Island and Washington – sought National guard troops.
Trump’s announcement came as tens of millions of students on three continents faced weeks without classes, security forces went on standby to guard against large gatherings, and bars, restaurants and offices closed.
The former reality TV star also surprised reporters by reversing his insistence on not needing to be tested for coronavirus, or even going into self-quarantine, following his contact with numerous politicians who since took the precautionary measure.
Last weekend, Trump hosted Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who said Friday he tested negative for the virus after it emerged that his press secretary had tested positive. Trump had also met with the press secretary during dinner at his golf resort in Florida. He would “most likely” be tested “fairly soon,” he told reporters.
POWER NO PROTECTION
The spreading pandemic showed that power and influence offer no protection. Among those testing positive were the Canadian prime minister’s wife, a top aide to Iran’s supreme leader, Miami’s mayor and an Australian Cabinet minister who met with the US attorney general and Trump’s daughter, Ivanka.
France’s president announced that leaders of the world’s largest democracies, the G7, would hold a video-conference summit Monday to discuss coordinating research on a vaccine and treatments, as well as an economic response.
Channelling wartime rhetoric and tactics in the face of a microscopic enemy, leaders appealed for solidarity to battle a threat that appeared to expand exponentially. They vowed to protect not just the sick, but those sacrificing their livelihoods and education for the greater good. But new border checks were also on the rise, showing that solidarity had its limits in the face of a fastmoving threat.
With promises of financial support from the European Commission, France and Germany, stocks in Europe clawed back some of their losses while in the United States, stocks surged after Trump’s announcement. The Dow Jones Industrial Average jumped nearly 2,000 points higher — its biggest point gain ever. The rally came at the end of a turbulent week fuelled by heightened fears that the fallout from the coronavirus could bring on a global recession.
SITUATION IN ITALY WORSENS
At the same time, new infections in Italy soared by more than 2,500 and virus-related deaths made their biggest single day jump, increasing by 250. In just three weeks, since the country identified its first virus cluster, Italy now has a total of 17,600 confirmed cases, with 1,266 deaths. The government has ordered an unprecedented lockdown, ordering businesses to close and restricting movement.
“Europe has now become the epicentre of the pandemic,” said World Health Organisation Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “More cases are now being reported every day than were reported in China at the height of its epidemic.”
New infections also rose sharply in Spain, and the government put 60,000 people in four towns on a mandatory lockdown Friday that echoed Italy’s. In Madrid, which is struggling with nearly 2,000 infections, many in nursing homes, the government was pooling intensive care units and considering offers by hotel chains to transform rooms into sick wards.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced a two-week state of emergency beginning today and pledged to “mobilise all resources,” including military, to contain the country’s sharp rise in coronavirus cases.
In just 24 hours, the numbers of confirmed cases were spiking ominously in some places: France saw an additional 800 cases to reach more than 3,600 by Friday; Britain went from 590 to 798 and New York state jumped 30 percent, hitting 421. Cases topped 1,700 across the United States.
In China , where new infections have tailed off, authorities mobilised to prevent a boomerang effect, quarantining new arrivals for 14 days.
In Europe and the United States, leaders and medical experts tried to predict the future — or at least the next few weeks — by scrutinising the virus’ trajectory so far, especially in China and Italy, the epicentres of Asia and Europe.
The Italian town of Codogno, which had all but shut down hours after recording Italy’s first locally spread coronavirus infection, showed that changing habits does make a difference. New infections have slowed drastically there compared to the rest of Italy, where draconian measures came far later.
“More than a sigh of relief, there was some concern over the risk that all of the sacrifices were in vain,” said Mayor Francesco Passerini, who like most in the town wears a mask.
The goal is to slow the virus’ spread to avoid overwhelming hospitals with those sickened by an illness that no-one in the world has immunity to. Worldwide, more than 5,000 have died, but half of those who had the virus have already recovered. Most patients have mild or moderate symptoms such as a fever or cold, but severe symptoms including pneumonia can occur, especially in the elderly and people with existing health problems.
European officials pushed back against Trump’s sharp restrictions on travel from Europe. “Instead of tending to the problems of his country, and to a virus that knows no borders, he thinks that he can fight it like people that have a different citizenship than American,” said German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz.
New travel restrictions sprang up practically by the hour on Friday: Switzerland, Sri Lanka, Portugal, the Czech Republic — all started barring entry to Europeans considered at risk. Ukraine announced it would halt all passenger air traffic, Poland said anyone entering the country will be put under a 14-day quarantine, while the Czech Republic and Slovakia have stopped almost all movement in and out of their countries. The European Union urged member countries to put health screening procedures in place at their borders.
Canada and Denmark joined the United States in advising citizens to avoid trips abroad, and Americans in Europe caught increasingly rare trans-Atlantic flights back home.
The spread of the virus in Europe, North America and the Middle East has drawn contrasts with waning outbreaks in the hardest-hit nations in Asia. China, where the virus emerged late last year, still accounts for more than 60 percent of global infections but on Friday reported just eight new cases and seven deaths.
‘AS MUCH ASSISTANCE AS IT CAN’
Chinese President Xi Jinping told UN leader António Guterres his nation was returning to normal and now wants to conduct joint research on drugs and vaccines and offer “as much assistance as it can” to countries in need. A Chinese medical crew arrived in Italy and surplus supplies were sent to Iran.
In South Korea, which had nearly 8,000 cases overall, Friday marked the first day recoveries outnumbered new infections since the country’s first patient was confirmed January 20.
In Iran, which exceeds 10,000 cases and 400 deaths, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif urged the Trump administration to immediately lift sanctions over the country's nuclear programme. H e said they made it difficult to import medicine and medical equipment. State-run TV reported a positive test and home quarantine for Ali Akbar Velayati, a trusted adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the 80-year-old leader of the Islamic Republic.
Iran’s senior vice-president, Cabinet ministers, members of parliament, Revolutionary Guard members and Health Ministry officials are also infected.
The virus has also cut a swathe through sporting events and put a major question mark over the Tokyo Olympics, with Trump saying “maybe they postpone it for a year,” sparking furious denials from Japan.
In Britain, where the government’s softly-softly strategy has raised some eyebrows, Queen Elizabeth II has put off engagements, and local elections planned for May have been cancelled.
Downing Street has adopted a light touch approach to coronavirus measures, opting so far not to shut schools, with the aim of staggering demand on the health service and developing “herd immunity” in the population – but the strategy is controversial.
The government on Thursday stepped up its response to Covid-19, which officials warn may have infected up to 10,000 people in Britain, by asking those with mild symptoms to self-isolate for a week. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was not yet time to follow other European countries in closing schools or banning large events.
Health experts say moving too soon could be disruptive and only have limited effect. It could also see people become frustrated and stop complying just when cases peak. The government is also hoping to stretch the outbreak to avoid overwhelming the state-run National Health Service (NHS), which is already struggling with staff shortages and a seasonal flu outbreak.
People with mild symptoms are being asked not even to visit or call a doctor unless their condition worsens, to allow medical staff to focus on those most in need.
“We want to suppress it [the virus], not get rid of it completely,” said Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser.
Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt criticised the approach, saying many would be “surprised and concerned” that more was not being done to tackle the spread.
Devi Sridhar, professor of global public health at Edinburgh University, added: “Now is the time for the UK government to ban large gatherings, ask people to stop non-essential travel, recommend employers shift to home working and ramp up the response.
“The curve can be shifted, like South Korea and Singapore, but only with government action.”
Leaders and celebrities infected
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s wife Sophie Grégoire Trudeau is in isolation after testing positive for COVID-19, leaving the prime minister to go into isolation for 14 days as well even though he has no symptoms.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s communications director, Fábio Wajngarten, tested positive just days after traveling with Bolsonaro to a meeting with US President Donald Trump and senior aides in Florida. The White House said Trump had almost no interaction with Wajngarten and does not plan to be tested or go into self-quarantine.
Meanwhile, actor Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson remain isolated in a hospital in Australia after testing positive for the new coronavirus. Hanks said they are taking the situation “one day at a time” and that they are staying isolated so as not to spread it to others.
The virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, for most people but can be severe in some cases, especially older adults and people withexisting health problems.