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WORLD | 16-03-2020 16:07

Daily life near a standstill as nations try to halt pandemic

Meeting with friends, dining out, worshiping and other daily routines have nearly halted as nations take drastic steps to try to stop the coronavirus pandemic.

Meeting with friends, dining out, worshipping and other daily routines have nearly halted as nations take drastic steps to try to stop the coronavirus pandemic.

Religious leaders gave sermons to empty pews or to the faithful watching online Sunday after public worship was curtailed in many places.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem's Old City was being closed indefinitely, and the Vatican closed off next month's Holy Week services to the public. Still, the 83-year-old Pope Francis ventured out of the Vatican to visit two churches in Rome to pray for the sick.

In the United States, health officials recommended a limit to groups of 50 or more people and a government expert said a 14-day national shutdown may be needed.

Americans returning from abroad encountered chaotic airport health screenings and closed-down communities. In a sign of how much the pandemic has grown, China now accounts for less than half of the world's 168,000 cases, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

The country where the virus was first detected in December had long been the epicentre of the COVID-19 illness, but a shutdown of public gatherings and a quarantine of the hardest-hit central region has steadied its caseload as the virus spreads rapidly elsewhere. Most of the world's 77,000 recovered patients are in China.

Though China still has the most infections, a dozen other countries have more than 1,000 cases, mostly in Europe.

On the first day of Spain's quarantine, long lines formed for food as police patrolled. Soldiers and police sealed off the Philippines' densely populated capital, Manila, from most domestic travellers. Austria planned to limit movement, and Lebanon was put on lock down, closing down Beirut's famed seaside corniche.

Ireland ordered all pubs and bars to close for two weeks — including on Tuesday, St. Patrick's Day — and urged people not even to hold house parties. Two pub industry groups had warned of the "real difficulty" in keeping people apart in the country's famous watering holes.

Italy welcomed a Chinese medical team to help it cope with its patient workload as health officials warn of what will come as the virus hits elsewhere.

"It's not a wave. It's a tsunami," stressed Dr. Roberto Rona, who's in charge of intensive care at the Monza hospital.

Italy on Sunday reported its biggest day-to-day increase in infections — 3,590 more cases in a 24-hour period — for a total of almost 24,747. And 368 more deaths brought its toll to 1,809, more than a quarter of the global death toll.

State of emergency

For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, and those with mild illness recover in about two weeks. However, severe illness including pneumonia can occur, especially in the elderly and people with existing health problems, and recovery could take six weeks in such cases.

The needs to stop the virus from spreading to the most vulnerable people and to not overwhelm health care systems with sick patients are pushing the urgent calls for people to avoid public crowds or just stay home.

People should go out "only alone or with the people who live in their apartment," said Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose country has 800 infections.

That was echoed by one of America's top infectious disease experts.

"I think Americans should be prepared that they are going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing,'' Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health told NBC's "Meet the Press.''

Governors in California, Illinois and Ohio told all bars and restaurants to close or reduce their number of customers. New York City will shutter the nation's largest public school system as early as Tuesday, sending over 1.1 million children home.

With fears increasing that the pandemic will depress US economic growth, the Federal Reserve took emergency action by slashing its benchmark interest rate to near zero and deciding to buy US$700 billion in Treasury and mortgage bonds.

Travellers returning to the US after the Trump administration imposed a wide-ranging ban on people entering from Europe faced hours long waits for medical screenings. Images on social media showed packed arrival halls and winding lines.

"This is unacceptable, counterproductive and exactly the opposite of what we need to do to prevent #COVID19," Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth tweeted.

Italy banned passengers from taking ferries to Sardinia and halted overnight train trips, which many in the north had used to reach homes and families in the south.

Even as authorities pleaded for people to stay home, Pope Francis visited St. Mary Major Basilica, near Rome's central train station, to pray for the sick, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said.

He then walked to another church with a crucifix that in 1522 was carried in a procession during a plague afflicting Rome. In his prayer, Francis has ''invoked the end of the pandemic that has stricken Italy and the world, implored healing for the many sick, recalled the many victims of these days" and asked for consolation for their family and friends.

During his 90-minute foray, the pontiff and his security detail were nearly the only people around.

The Vatican will all Holy Week ceremonies to the public starting with Palm Sunday on April 5. Holy Week services usually draw tens of thousands to Rome but Italian tourism has vanished.

Spain was under lock down amid a two-week state of emergency.

"From now, we enter into a new phase," said Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, whose wife tested positive. "We won't hesitate in doing what we need must to beat the virus. We are putting health first."

In Barcelona, there were long lines to buy bread. Police patrolled parks and told people who were not walking their dogs to go home. The Las Ramblas promenade was eerily empty.

Spain's Health Ministry said the country has recorded 288 deaths, up from 136 on Saturday. The number of infections rose to 7,753 from 5,700.

The Czech Republic will start a lock down Monday, and Netherlands ordered all schools, day-care centres, restaurants and bars to close until April 6. The new restrictions cover Amsterdam's famed marijuana-selling "coffee shops" and sex clubs.

Elsewhere, Morocco suspended all international flights, and Turkey set aside quarantine beds for more than 10,000 people returning from Islam's holy sites in Saudi Arabia.

Life in containment

Even as social life largely halted, some attempts at keeping up public life persisted.

France went ahead Sunday with nationwide elections to choose mayors and other local leaders. A 1-meter (yard) gap between people was mandated, as well as soap or sanitising gel and disinfectant wipes for voting machines.

The German state of Bavaria also held municipal elections, with poll workers wearing gloves. Germany will partially close its borders with France, Switzerland, Austria, Luxembourg and Denmark on Monday, and Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said people will no longer be allowed to cross those borders without a valid reason, such as for work.

Britain, which has not yet restricted everyday activities, said it plans to set out emergency powers this week, including potentially requiring people over 70 to self-isolate for up to four months and banning mass gatherings.*

"We will do the right thing at the right time," Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the BBC.

Puerto Rico ordered nearly all businesses to close for next two weeks and set a nighttime curfew following confirmation of a fifth case.

With the virus having reached 25 of Africa's 54 countries, sweeping restrictions were announced. Kenya is banning travellers from countries with infections and closing all schools for three weeks.

Senegal and Mauritania also are closing schools. Senegal also banned all public gatherings for a month, stopping cruise ships from docking and suspending Muslim and Christian pilgrimages.

Dalia Samhouri, a regional official with the World Health Organisation, said both Iran and Egypt, two of the most populous countries in the Mideast, were likely underreporting cases because infected people can still show no visible symptoms.

Iran says it has nearly 14,000 virus cases and 724 deaths, while Egypt has reported 110 cases, including two fatalities.

Testing for the illness has also varied from country to country and community to community.

The US was prioritising medical workers and senior citizens with symptoms, in order to avoid paralysing the health care system.

"It's important the tests are available for the people who are most in need and our health care workers and first responders that are helping and supporting them," Vice President Mike Pence  told reporters at the White House.

by Frances D’Emilio & Joseph Wilson, Associated Press

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