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18.03.2020 Europe

EU shuts borders as virus deaths exceed Asia toll

By Tanya Willmer with Dave Clark in Brussels and AFP bureaus
Italy is the hardest hit country in Europe.  By Alberto PIZZOLI (AFP/File)Italy is the hardest hit country in Europe. By Alberto PIZZOLI (AFP/File)
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The European Union sealed off its borders Wednesday to try to put the brakes on the ferocious spread of the coronavirus pandemic, as the number of deaths on the continent soared past the toll in Asia.

Millions of people are on strict lockdown in Europe, now the epicentre of COVID-19 with more than 3,400 deaths now recorded, according to an AFP tally.

The United States and Britain led a multi-billion-dollar global fightback against the economic havoc unleashed by COVID-19 but financial markets were unimpressed, with Asian and European stocks plunging further.

Governments across the world have imposed draconian measures to try to slow the pace of infections, confining people to their homes, closing shops, restaurants and schools, dramatically changing life as we know it.

The coronavirus outbreak, which first emerged in China late last year, has quickly marched across the globe, infecting nearly 200,000 people and killing almost 7,900.

Europe has now recorded 3,421 deaths -- including 2,503 in Italy -- leapfrogging Asia with 3,384, according to an AFP tally at 1100 GMT.

As the spectre of a deep global recession looms large, London and Washington Tuesday announced massive economic stimulus packages after coming under fire over their response to the crisis.

How long does the virus survive?.  By John SAEKI (AFP) How long does the virus survive?. By John SAEKI (AFP)

US President Donald Trump said the White House was discussing a "substantial" spending bill with Congress that would include immediate cash payments to Americans.

Officials did not give hard numbers but The Washington Post reported the amount could reach $850 billion, with a chunk destined for airlines fearing ruin.

"We're going big," Trump told reporters.

British finance minister Rishi Sunak unveiled an "unprecedented package" of government-backed loans worth 330 billion pounds ($400 billion) for businesses struggling in the sudden economic paralysis caused by mass self-quarantine.

Similar measures have been introduced by France and Germany, the two leading members of the 27-member European Union.

EU leaders decided Tuesday to impose an entry ban on travellers from outside the bloc for 30 days, the most significant emergency measure from Brussels, which has struggled to develop a unified response.

A doctor visits homeless people in the Haight Ashbury area of San Francisco as part of the US response to the coronavirus outbreak.  By Josh Edelson (AFP) A doctor visits homeless people in the Haight Ashbury area of San Francisco as part of the US response to the coronavirus outbreak. By Josh Edelson (AFP)

EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen told Germany's Bild newspaper that politicians had initially underestimated the virus threat.

"But now it is clear that this is a virus that will keep us busy for a long time yet," she said. "We understand that measures that seemed drastic two or three weeks ago, need to be taken now."

The World Health Organization has called for every suspected coronavirus case to be tested and says Europe needs to take the "boldest actions" against the disease.

Drugmakers are scrambling for a breakthrough, and it could still take more than a year before a safe vaccine is ready to market. US officials have said the first human trial for a possible vaccine has begun.

Glossary of a pandemic.  By John SAEKI (AFP) Glossary of a pandemic. By John SAEKI (AFP)

In the United States, restrictions continued to build, with Maryland becoming the latest state to delay presidential election primaries and New York City considering curfews.

Australia's government urged citizens to not travel abroad and banned gatherings of more than 100 people as cases topped 500.

Asian hotspots China and South Korea have seen new infections and deaths level out in recent weeks -- China reported just one new domestic case for the second consecutive day on Wednesday.

Africa, with its fragile healthcare systems, has also recorded more than 500 cases, and Burkina Faso reported the first confirmed death in sub-Saharan Africa.

Latin America has more than 1,100 recorded infections, with the continent's most populated country Brazil announcing its first fatality.

'Invisible enemy'

Trump, who for weeks has been accused of playing down the crisis, appeared determined to take control of his messaging, declaring he would do everything to fight an "invisible enemy".

"We have to win this war," he said at the White House, where staff and journalists now have to undergo regular temperature checks.

Battered US stocks -- which Trump considers a key metric of his success ahead of the November presidential election -- closed higher after the stimulus announcement.

But markets slumped again in Asia and Europe on Wednesday.

Trump had acknowledged on Monday that the economy might be sliding into recession.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron also likened the outbreak to war and ordered almost the entire population to stay at home for at least two weeks.

St Patrick's Day festivities were cancelled in Dublin.  By Paul Faith (AFP) St Patrick's Day festivities were cancelled in Dublin. By Paul Faith (AFP)

Britain stepped up its measures following scientific advice that infections and deaths would spiral without drastic action.

Usually joyful -- and alcohol-fuelled -- Saint Patrick's Day celebrations were cancelled in Dublin, New York and Boston.

Anthony Whyte, 49, looked out onto the cobbled streets of Dublin from a bar and likened the scene to "a ghost town".

"It's like armageddon," he said.

G7 leaders have vowed to "do whatever it takes" to prevent a financial meltdown.

However, every sector from tourism to food to aviation is affected as the global economy effectively goes into shutdown.

Major world airlines have axed almost all flights temporarily, triggering pleas to help carriers survive.

The outbreak has also shredded the global sporting and cultural calendar.

In football, The European and Copa America championships have been postponed until next year, and the French Open tennis tournament has been delayed to the autumn.

The Tokyo Olympics still hang in the balance.

The International Olympic Committee acknowledged there was no "ideal" solution, after some top athletes said they were being forced to take health risks should the summer extravaganza go ahead.

And the organisers of the annual Glastonbury music festival in England have cancelled this year's 50th anniversary event.

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