Barcelona: Spain locked down its 46 million citizens and France ordered the closing of just about everything the rest of the world loves about it - the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the cafes and restaurants - as governments took increasingly desperate measures to put more space between people and contain the coronavirus.
More borders snapped shut around the globe on Saturday and Sunday: President Donald Trump announced that the US, which days ago barred travellers from most of Europe, will extend the ban to Britain and Ireland. In the Philippines, thousands of police and soldiers started sealing the densely populated capital from most domestic travellers in one of Southeast Asia’s most drastic containment moves.
Meanwhile, China, where the virus first appeared late last year, continued to relax its drastic restrictions, illustrating the way the centre of gravity in the crisis has shifted westward toward Europe. The virus has infected more than 150,000 people worldwide and killed over 5,600.
In a nationally televised address Saturday, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez detailed the battery of exceptional measures put in place as part of a two-week state of emergency to fight the sharp rise in infections.
Later Saturday, Spain’s government said Sanchez’s wife has tested positive for coronavirus. Begona Gomez and the prime minister are in good health, the government said. On March 15, Spain reported 2,000 new virus cases and more than 100 deaths in 24 hours.
Two ministers of Sanchez’s Cabinet, the minister of equality and the minister of regional affairs, had already tested positive earlier this week. The others member of the Cabinet have tested negative.
In a lockdown similar to the one already imposed in Italy, people will be allowed to leave their homes only to buy food and medicine, commute to work, go to hospitals and banks, or take trips related to the care of the young and the elderly. All schools and universities were closed, along with restaurants, bars, hotels and other non-essential retail businesses.
“From now we enter into a new phase,” Sanchez said after a Cabinet meeting that lasted over seven hours. “We won’t hesitate in doing what we must to beat the virus. We are putting health first.”
Rapid increase in infections
Spanish authorities said the number of infections climbed past 5,700, half of them in the capital, Madrid. That represents a national increase of over 1,500 in 24 hours. The country had 136 deaths, up from 120. Spain has the fifth-highest number of cases, behind China, Italy, Iran and South Korea.
For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover in a matter of weeks.
Despite please for calm from authorities, shoppers packed supermarkets in Spain in the morning. But overall, the normally bustling streets of the country’s two biggest cities were noticeably quieter as the message sank in that social distancing is the only way to stop the pandemic.
“We had to close and remain shut for 15 days,” restaurant owner Rachel Paparardo said in Barcelona, which was already under regional restrictions. “But this is nothing. It is just so more people don’t get infected and we can recover from this.”
Some flights bound for Spain turned around as word spread of the lockdown.
In the Philippines, new restrictions for metropolitan Manila - home to more than 12 million people - that went into effect Sunday mean the suspension of domestic travel by land, air and sea to and from the capital region.
Large gatherings like concerts, movies and cockfighting are prohibited and most government work in executive department offices will be suspended in the metropolis for a month. School closures at all levels were extended and curfew was in the works.
“If you’ll go to work, go. If you need to go out for medical treatment, go. If you’ll buy food, go, but other than that, stay home,” Philippine Interior Secretary Eduardo Ano told a news conference.
Countries around the world have been moving to prevent their health systems from collapsing under the load of all the virus cases.
Paris followed other cities in shuttering major tourist attractions, and France announced the closing of all restaurants, cafes, theatres and nonessential shops starting Sunday. France has recorded at least 3,600 infections. It has banned all gatherings of more than 100 people, ordered all schools closed and asked companies to allow workers to stay home.
France pressed ahead with plans for nationwide municipal elections on Sunday but ordered special measures to keep people at a safe distance and to sanitise surfaces.
The country also decided to progressively reduce long-distance train, bus and plane travel on its territory over the coming days in a bid to limit the spread of the coronavirus, the ecology minister said Sunday.
The country, which has already shut cafes, restaurants, schools and universities and urged people to limit their movements, will now seek to limit long-distance travel "to the strictly necessary" minister Elisabeth Borne told journalists in Paris.
Worst hit in Europe
In Italy, the worst-hit European country, the number of deaths climbed past 1,400 and infections surged roughly 20 percent overnight to more than 21,000 because of what authorities characterized as irresponsible behavior by people still socializing despite the nationwide lockdown. Many Italian cities, including Rome and Milan, decided to close playgrounds and parks, too.
Premier Giuseppe Conte has said production - particularly of food and health supplies - must not stop. On Saturday, union and industrial leaders reached an agreement to keep factories running.
At noon, people around Italy came out on their balconies, terraces or gardens or leaned out their windows to clap for several minutes in a gesture of thanks to medical workers.
In Britain, the death toll nearly doubled from the day before to 21, and the number of people infected rose to over 1,100. Ireland had 90 confirmed cases and one death as of Friday. Greece’s infection total approached 230 with three deaths, and police there arrested 45 shopkeepers Saturday for violating a ban on operations.
The US has seen 59 deaths - including the first in New York, Louisiana and Virginia - and more than 2,100 cases. In hard-hit Washington state, where 40 have died and more than 550 have been infected, officials said the disease is straining the supply of protective gear available to medical providers despite shipments from the federal government.
Trump has tested negative for the new coronavirus, the president’s personal physician said Saturday.
European countries took steps to isolate themselves from their neighbours.
Denmark closed its borders and halted passenger traffic to and from the country. Travellers will be turned away at the border if they are unable to show that they have “a legitimate reason” to enter - for example, if they are Danish citizens or residents.
Poland planned to close is borders at midnight and deny all foreigners entry unless they lived in Poland or had personal ties there. The Czech Republic and Slovakia took similar action. Lithuania said it was introducing border checks at the frontiers with Poland and Latvia.
Russia said its borders with Norway and Poland will be closed to most foreigners beginning Sunday.
In the Middle East, Iran’s death toll reached 611, with nearly 13,000 infections, including senior government officials.
In the Pacific, New Zealand announced that incoming passengers, including citizens, will be required to isolate themselves for 14 days, with few exceptions.
The measures increasingly mirror those taken by China, which in January quarantined more than 60 million people, starting with the epicentre, Wuhan, in the province of Hubei.
The spread of COVID-19 in China has slowed dramatically, according to the National Health Commission. After reporting thousands of new cases per day only a month ago, the commission said Saturday that there were 13 new deaths and just 11 new cases, including people who recently arrived in China from other affected countries like Italy.
Wuhan is now the only city in Hubei still designated “high-risk.” Several Hubei municipalities are gradually resuming public transportation and reopening businesses. Parks, museums and art galleries have reopened in Shanghai.
Austria tightened restrictions on public life on Sunday, banning gatherings of more than five people and restricting any movement to that which is absolute necessary, saying police would enforce the rules in a bid to halt the spread of coronvirus.
The tougher measures were decided at an extraordinary session of parliament, during which Chancellor Sebastian Kurz called on the population to self-isolate, only move out of doors when absolutely necessary and limit contacts to "the people they live with".