US and Spanish deaths surge as world virus toll breaks 50,000

By: AFP      Published: 05:11 PM, 3 Apr, 2020
US and Spanish deaths surge as world virus toll breaks 50,000
Medical staff move bodies from the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center to a refrigerated truck in Brooklyn, New York. AFP

The number of confirmed coronavirus deaths accelerated past 50,000 on Friday as the United States, Spain and Britain grappled with their highest tolls yet and the world economy took a massive hit.

The human scale of the pandemic has never been more stark -- experts warning that more than one million cases of COVID-19 disease confirmed globally is probably only a small proportion of total infections as testing is still not widely available.

The United States accounts for around a quarter of confirmed cases but Europe is far from being out of danger -- Spain reported more than 900 deaths in 24 hours on Friday, for the second day running.

The virus has now killed more 10,000 people across Spain, but not 29-year-old Javier Lara, who has just returned home after being treated in an overburdened intensive care unit.

"I was panicking that my daughter would get infected. When I started showing symptoms, I said I wouldn't hold her or go near her, or change her nappies," he told AFP, describing his fear for his eight-week-old after facing death at the "worst moment in his life".

While Italy still leads the world in fatalities, France, Belgium and Britain have also been hard hit. The UK government is rushing to build field hospitals after a one-day toll of 569. The battle waged by public health experts across the world ebbed and flowed on Friday, with German experts saying the rate of new infections is slowing thanks to lockdown measures, but Asian city-state Singapore confirming it would close schools and workplaces to fend off a possible upsurge in cases. 

China's 14 'martyrs'

The world economy has been pummelled by the virus and associated lockdowns, with more than half the population of the planet under some kind of stay-at-home order.

Some 10 million people in the United States lost their jobs in the last two weeks of March, and economists warn it will get worse. "No words for this," said Ian Shepherdson of Pantheon Macroeconomics. "Total layoffs between the March and April payroll surveys look destined to reach perhaps 16 to 20 million, consistent with the unemployment rate leaping to 13 to 16 percent. In one month."

Things were no better in Europe, where analysts from IHS Markit warned that business activity in the 19-nation eurozone had suffered its worst crunch ever recorded, and the central bank of eurozone member Ireland saying its output could be slashed by 8.3 percent this year.

Financial ratings agency Fitch predicted both the US and eurozone economies would shrink this quarter by up to 30 percent and the Asian Development Bank warned on Friday the global economy could take a $4.1 trillion hit -- equivalent to five percent of worldwide output.

World leaders have announced huge financial aid packages to deal with the crisis and the World Bank has approved a plan to roll out $160 billion over 15 months.

The outbreak began last year in China, which announced a day of national mourning on Saturday for those who died fighting against the disease. Fourteen deceased frontline workers will be celebrated as "martyrs" of the epidemic.

In India, where more than a billion people are under lockdown, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called on Indians to hold candles and mobile phones aloft for nine minutes on Sunday to dispel the "darkness and uncertainty" of the pandemic.

Australia took the extreme step of declaring it would not allow the 15,000-strong crews of multiple virus-stricken cruise ships to disembark and ordering them out out of its waters -- dealing the world's teetering tourism industry another blow.

'Really scary'

Even in the world's richest country, health authorities are under pressure. New Yorkers like COVID-19 survivor Diana Berrent are donating blood plasma in the hope their hard-won antibodies can be used to help treat future victims.

"We can be superheroes," the 45-year-old photographer told AFP. "These are unprecedented, frightening times where everything is beyond our control -- except we as survivors can help."

The virus has chiefly killed the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions, but recent cases of deaths among teenagers and of a six-week-old baby have highlighted dangers for people of all ages.

And in Spain, mothers like 34-year-old Vanesa Muro who gave birth while suffering from COVID-19 are warned not to touch their newborn without wearing gloves and masks.

"It's hard," she told AFP at her home in Madrid. "He grabs your finger, the poor little thing and holds on to the plastic, not on to you. But at least that's another day over, you have to think of it like that otherwise you get depressed."

The personal strains of the virus have also not spared world leaders.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel left her Berlin home for the first time in almost two weeks on Friday after she was quarantined following contact with an infected doctor, but British premier Boris Johnson was still working in isolation after testing positive.

Politically, the virus deepened fault lines in the EU, with Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte writing to European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen to demand more ambition and courage from his partners, accusing her of peddling ideas "not worthy of Europe".

Meanwhile, in northeast Nigeria, aid workers say the virus could rampage through sprawling camps for 1.8 million people displaced by a decade-long Boko Haram insurgency. "There is no health system to contain that virus... it will spread like wildfire and affect all involved," said one United Nations worker on condition of anonymity. "It is really scary."


Agence France-Presse is an international news agency.