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Global coronavirus cases top 200,000 as authorities unleash economic aid packages

Workers wearing protective gear spray disinfectant at a subway station in Seoul, South Korea on March 13, 2020.
Workers wearing protective gear spray disinfectant at a subway station in Seoul, South Korea on March 13, 2020. AFP - JUNG YEON-JE

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases worldwide rose above the 200,000 mark Wednesday, according to John Hopkins University, as governments tightened restrictions and announced new economic measures to help cope with the crisis.

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Hundreds of millions of people worldwide were adjusting on Wednesday to once-in-a-generation measures to battle the coronavirus crisis that is not only killing the old and vulnerable but also threatening prolonged economic misery.

The fast-spreading disease that jumped from animals to humans in China has now infected more than 205, 470 people and caused 8,248 deaths, according to John Hopkins University, triggering emergency lockdowns and injections of cash unseen since World War Two.

"We have never lived through anything like this," Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez told a parliament chamber nearly empty with more than 90 percent of lawmakers staying away and a masked and gloved cleaner wiping handrails between speeches.

"And our society, which had grown used to changes that expand our possibilities of knowledge, health and life, now finds itself at war to defend all we have taken for granted."

The EU closed its external borders, creating traffic jams miles long on Wednesday and slowing the passage of trucks carrying critical supplies.

There was particular alarm in Italy, which has experienced the world’s second highest number of confirmed cases and deaths after China from the virus. The government has now called on student and retired doctors to help an overwhelmed health service.

Millions in France were adjusting to life under severe restrictions with around 100,000 police and gendarmes deployed across the country to enforce the lockdown measures, with people only allowed to leave home for officially sanctioned reasons such as going to work, shopping for necessities or getting medical treatment.

Lives turned upside-down

Around the world, rich and poor alike saw lives turned upside-down as events were cancelled, shops stripped, workplaces emptied, streets deserted, schools shut and travel minimized.

"Cleanliness is important - but here it's not easy," said Marcelle Diatta, a 41-year-old mother of four in Senegal where announcements rang from loudspeakers urging people to wash hands but water was often cut off in her suburb.

The crisis has created a wave of solidarity in some countries, with neighbours, families and colleagues coming together to look after the most needy, including dropping supplies at the doors of those forced to stay indoors.

In France and Spain, applause has been ringing out at 8 pm as isolated neighbours express gratitude to health services. In several countries, stores began reserving special times for elderly shoppers.

Unleashing economic aid

Spooked by a seemingly inevitable global recession, rich nations are unleashing billions of dollars in stimulus to economies, aid to health services, loans to tottering businesses, and help for individuals fearful for mortgages and other routine payments.

"This is a once-in-a-hundred-year type event," said Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, warning the crisis could last six months as his nation became the latest to restrict gatherings and overseas travel.

Extra cash from governments and central banks failed to calm markets: stocks and oil prices reeled again, with European shares down nearly 5% to approach seven-year lows.

Taking their cue from the waning of the coronavirus in China, where it emerged at the end of last year, optimists predict a bounce back once the epidemic also passes its peak elsewhere - hoped to be within months.

Pessimists are factoring in the possibility of recurring outbreaks and years of pain, some even whispering comparisons with the Great Depression of the 1930s.

On the ground, millions of workers fear for their jobs.

In China, the world's second biggest economy after the United States, the jobless rate rose to 6.2 percent in February, the highest since records began, and up from 5.2 percent in December.

The majority of Chinese businesses and factories – apart from the epicentre in Hubei province – have reopened, but it is unclear how many workers and staff have actually returned.

The crisis exacerbated some long-running geopolitical frictions. A EU  document accused Russian media of stoking panic in the West via misinformation over the disease, while China withdrew credentials of American journalists at three U.S. newspapers in a row in part over coverage of the coronavirus.

Among the latest cultural events to be cancelled was the 50th anniversary of Britain's Glastonbury music festival.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

 

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