Macron warns of ‘race against the virus’ as global death toll passes 10,000

French President Emmanuel Macron attends a meeting at the emergency crisis centre of the Interior Ministry in Paris, France, March 20, 2020.
French President Emmanuel Macron attends a meeting at the emergency crisis centre of the Interior Ministry in Paris, France, March 20, 2020. © Gonzalo Fuentes, REUTERS
11 min

The US urged Americans to avoid all travel and France’s president warned French citizens they were only “at the start of this crisis” as governments around the world stepped up efforts to try to slow a coronavirus pandemic toll that on Friday surpassed 10,000 people worldwide.

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Wuhan, China, where the outbreak began, offered a ray of hope with no new infections reported for a second day in a row and only 39 cases reported nationwide – all of them brought from the outside, the government said.

In a measure of how the fortunes of East and West have shifted, a Chinese Red Cross official heading an aid delegation to Milan castigated Italians for failing to take their national lockdown seriously. Sun Shuopeng said he was shocked to see so many people walking around, using public transportation and eating out in hotels.

“Right now we need to stop all economic activity, and we need to stop the mobility of people,” he said. “All people should be staying at home in quarantine.”

But globally, governments are trying to balance the need to lock down residents with the need to keep food, medicine and other essentials flowing.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron urged employees to keep working in supermarkets, production sites and other necessary businesses even as his government imposed stringent restrictions of movement.

>> French Senate approves state of health emergency as virus cases pass 10,000

“We need to keep the country running,” Macron said, while admonishing those who fail to take the virus – and a nationwide lockdown – seriously.

"We are at the start of this crisis. We have taken exceptional measures to absorb this first wave, but we've started a race against the virus," the French president added at the beginning of a crisis meeting at the Interior Ministry on Friday.

"We must react a great deal and reorganise ourselves at every moment. We need to anticipate," he said.

Half of all deaths in Europe

Worldwide, the death toll from COVID-19 passed 10,000 and infections exceeded 244,000, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally, with Europe accounting for more than half the fatalities. 

Italy, with 60 million citizens, has recorded more deaths than China, a country with a population over 20 times larger.

On Friday, Italy saw the largest death toll rise in 24 hours since the outbreak began with a surge by 627 to 4,032 deaths. The number of confirmed cases in the country jumped to 47, 021 from Thursday's 41,035. 

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Though the illness is mild in most people, the elderly are particularly susceptible to serious symptoms. Italy has the world’s second-oldest population, and the vast majority of its dead – 87 percent – were over 70.

Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit, a virologist at Germany's Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine, offered another reason for Italy's high death rate: “That's what happens when the health system collapses."

In Iran, another hard-hit country, the official toll was also rising quickly amid fears it is underreporting the scale of the pandemic.

Tehran accused the United States of helping spread the virus by retaining sanctions that prevent it importing desperately needed medicine and medical equipment.

“In other words, while the US is trying to curb the virus internally, it is helping the spread of the virus externally," Iran's UN mission said in a statement.

More than 86,000 people have recovered, mostly in China, but the pace is much slower than the spread of the virus. Recovery takes two weeks or so for mild cases but can be up to six weeks for those that turn serious, according to the World Health Organization.

Lockdowns, travel bans

Nations are imposing ever-stricter border controls and lockdowns to keep people at home and keep away outsiders, hoping to slow the spread of the virus while preparing for an onslaught of sick patients. 

In California, Governor Gavin Newsom said that if strong action wasn't taken, 56 percent of the state's 40 million residents could contract the virus over the next eight weeks. He expanded restrictions on nonessential movement outside of homes, warning that the spread of the virus threatened to overwhelm California's medical system.

Similar restrictions are in place in virus hotspots like Italy, Spain and central China, with Latin American countries the latest to start implementing lockdowns and curfews.

US President Donald Trump’s administration upgraded its already dire warning to Americans against all international travel, and the State Department announced new restrictions on the issuance of passports to US citizens. 

>> France says 130,000 nationals stranded abroad amid virus restrictions

In Morocco, several hundred Americans were scattered in cities around the country, sleeping on floors in the Marrakech airport, holed up in one of the last hotels open in Rabat and banding together on a Facebook group – US Citizens Trapped in Morocco.

“The airport in Marrakech is crowded. People are touching shoulder to shoulder and many are sleeping on the floor,” student Corrine Schmaedeke, who managed to get a ticket Thursday to fly home after eight cancellations, told AP.

‘Herbert Hoover of our generation’

In the US, the military prepared mobile hospitals for deployment in major cities, and motorists waited in long queues for nurses to swab their nostrils at new US drive-thru testing sites. 

At a video conference with Trump, state governors complained they were having difficulty obtaining such things as swabs and protective gear for doctors and nurses.

Deaths have reached at least 205 and New York City is rapidly becoming a US epicenter, with more than 4,000 cases. 

Damage to the world's largest economy kept increasing, with the number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits surging by 70,000 last week.

Congress is weighing a proposed $1 trillion emergency package that would dispense relief checks to households in as many as two rounds, the first of which would consist of payments of $1,000 per adult and $500 for each child.

And New York Mayor Bill de Blasio lashed out at the president as “the Herbert Hoover of your generation", referring to the man who was president when the stock market crashed in 1929 and the Great Depression set in.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS)

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