India locks down more than 125 million as virus surges across globe


Patna (India) (AFP)

More than 125 million people in India began a new lockdown Thursday as authorities worldwide scramble to get a handle on a surge in coronavirus cases that continues to wreak havoc from America to Asia.

The number of infections worldwide hit 13.4 million and more than 581,000 deaths have been reported since the virus emerged in China late last year, with the United States topping the tally.

Cases are soaring in America's south and west, and on Wednesday the country set a record with more than 67,000 new infections in 24 hours.

India saw more than 600 deaths in a single day, and 125 million people in impoverished Bihar state, neighbouring Nepal, on Thursday started a new 15-day lockdown.

The country's booming southern IT hub of Bangalore and the coastal tourist state of Goa launched fresh restrictions earlier this week as the Red Cross warned south Asia is fast becoming the next epicentre of the virus.

"While the world's attention has been focused on the unfolding crisis in the United States and South America, a concurrent human tragedy is fast emerging in South Asia," said John Fleming, Asia-Pacific head of health for the organisation.

India's case count is on course to hit one million on Friday or Saturday and the number of deaths is approaching 25,000.

All schools, clubs, temples and non-essential businesses were ordered to close in Bihar but it remained to be seen what success officials would have in corralling the state's vast population.

An AFP staffer in Patna, the state capital, said Thursday morning that traffic appeared to be as busy as normal.

"We have not faced such a situation in my life before, it is really a horrible experience," said Radhika Singh, a housewife in her late 40s as she jostled to buy rice and lentils Wednesday ahead of the start of the lockdown.

- 'Stop this nonsense' -

Governments in many countries have been forced to roll back on plans to re-open battered economies as the virus refuses to fade.

In the United States, the world's worst-affected nation, Florida, California and Texas have been particularly hard hit, with political wrangling exacerbating their plight as officials attempt to balance commerce with public health.

The latest research showed the number of deaths in the US would surpass 150,000 by next month, and the country's top infectious diseases expert, Anthony Fauci, called for an end to the bickering.

"We've got to almost reset this and say, 'Okay, let's stop this nonsense'," Fauci told The Atlantic magazine.

Walmart, the world's largest retailer, said customers would need to wear masks at all its 5,300 stores from Monday, joining a growing group of American businesses to mandate face coverings.

- 'Radical quarantine' -

In other regions of the globe there has also been no respite from the virus threat as second waves sweep through a number of countries.

Deaths topped 150,000 in Latin America Wednesday, making it the world's second-hardest-hit region after Europe.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced a "radical quarantine" in the capital Caracas and neighbouring Miranda state following an alarming burst of cases.

But there were signs of hope in Asia as China reported a bounce-back of its economy with a 3.2 percent expansion in the second quarter -- better than forecast.

Most cinemas in the country will be allowed to re-open next week, with social distancing rules in place, after domestic infections remained at zero for 10 straight days.

There was also good news from American biotech firm Moderna -- a leader in the race for a vaccine -- which said it would start the final stage of human trials on July 27.

Authorities in Australia pleaded for the public to heed guidelines as roughly five million people in Melbourne endure a lockdown in force since last week.

"A particular concern for us is the ongoing parties and gatherings," said Rick Nugent, acting assistant commissioner for police in the southern state of Victoria, which has seen a rush of fresh cases.

"Please stop."