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WORLD | 31-03-2020 20:21

Deadliest day for Europe coronavirus hotspots, as US death toll surges

With more than 40,000 killed by the disease barrelling around the globe, the United States, already home to the largest number of confirmed infections, hit a bleak milestone as its national death toll surpassed China's. 

Deaths from the coronavirus spiked in Europe on Tuesday with Spain, France and Britain reporting their highest daily tolls to date, as field hospitals shot up across New York, the epicentre of the US outbreak bracing for dark times ahead.

With more than 40,000 killed by the disease barrelling around the globe, the United States, already home to the largest number of confirmed infections, hit a bleak milestone as its national death toll surpassed China's. 

In a matter of months, the virus has infected nearly 850,000 people in a crisis hammering the global economy and transforming the daily existence of some 3.6 billion people who have been told to stay home under lockdowns.

Deaths shot up again across Europe. While there are hopeful signs that the spread of infections is slowing in hardest-hit Italy and Spain, more than 800 died overnight in both countries.

France recorded a one-day record of 499 dead while Britain reported 381 coronavirus deaths.

With hospitals direly overstretched, lockdowns have been extended despite their crushing economic impact. 

In Belgium a 12-year-old girl died in another worrying case of a youth succumbing to the disease.

Meanwhile the United States saw its death toll top 3,600, roaring past China's official tally of 3,309, according to a Johns Hopkins University tracker. 

France joined it with a surge to 3,525 deaths, an official toll that includes only those who died in hospital and not those who perished at home or in seniors' homes. 

'We need help now'

The inundation of patients has sent health facilities around the world into overdrive.

Field hospitals are popping up in event spaces while distressed medical staff make grim decisions about how to distribute limited protective gear, beds and life-saving respirators.

In scenes previously unimaginable in peacetime, around a dozen white tents were erected to serve as a field hospital in New York's Central Park.

"You see movies like Contagion and you think it's so far from the truth, it will never happen. So to see it actually happening here is very surreal," 57-year-old passerby Joanne Dunbar told AFP.

While many companies and schools around the globe have shifted to teleworking and teaching over video platforms, huge swaths of the world's workforce cannot perform their jobs online and are now lacking pay and face a deeply uncertain future.

Food banks in New York City have seen a surge of newcomers struggling to feed their families. 

"It is my first time," Lina Alba, who lost her job as a cleaner in a Manhattan hotel that closed two weeks ago, said from a food distribution centre.

Millions of US citizens are awaiting cash injections from a US$2-trillion rescue package.

"We need the help now. This is crazy," said Alba, a 40-year-old single mother of five.

Three quarters of Americans are now under some form of lockdown.

Louisiana has emerged as a critical hotspot, with Governor John Bel Edwards warning the state was on track to exceed its ventilator capacity as early as Saturday. 

"We have yet to see any evidence that we are beginning to flatten the curve," Edwards said.

Off the Florida coast, a coronavirus-stricken cruise ship and its sister vessel are pleading for somewhere to dock, possibly at Fort Lauderdale, after four passengers died on board.

Virus breeds divisions

The staggering economic and political upheaval spurred by the virus is opening new fronts for cooperation and conflict. 

In virtual talks Tuesday, finance ministers and central bankers from the world's 20 major economies pledged to address the debt burden of low-income countries and deliver aid to emerging markets.

Last week G20 leaders said they were injecting $5 trillion into the global economy to head off a feared deep recession.

In the European Union, however, battle lines have been drawn over the terms of a rescue plan to finance the expected severe economic fallout. 

Worst-hit Italy and Spain are leading a group pushing for a shared debt instrument – dubbed "coronabonds."

But talk of common debt is a red line for Germany and other northern countries long opposed to such a measure, threatening to divide the bloc in the midst of a health catastrophe. 

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen warned governments not to use emergency measures as a pretext for power grabs.

Her call followed concerns about a new law giving Hungary's nationalist leader Viktor Orban sweeping authority to rule by decree until his government deems the emergency over.

Activists worldwide have voiced fears that autocrats will overreach and hold on to their new powers even after the crisis abates.

'Nothing to eat'

The economic pain of lockdowns is especially acute in the developing world. 

In Tunisia several hundred protested a week-old lockdown that has disproportionately impacted the poor.

"Nevermind coronavirus, we're going to die anyway! Let us work!" shouted one protester in the demonstration on the outskirts of the capital Tunis.

Africa's biggest city Lagos entered its first full day of a two-week shutdown – containment will be especially tough in the megacity's packed slums, where many rely on daily wages to survive. 

"There is no money for the citizens," engineer Ogun Nubi Victor, 60.

"People are just sitting at home, with nothing to eat."

While much of the world shuts down, the ground-zero Chinese city of Wuhan has begun reawakening in recent days, giving the bereaved the first chance in months to bury their dead.

– TIMES/AFP

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