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West unleashes billions to shield economy in virus 'war'

By Dmitry ZAKS
Gondolas sit empty in Venice's Grand Canal with Italy in lockdown to confront the dire impact of new coronavirus which, in one day, killed 475 more people in the country.  By ANDREA PATTARO (AFP)
LISTEN MAR 19, 2020
Gondolas sit empty in Venice's Grand Canal with Italy in lockdown to confront the dire impact of new coronavirus which, in one day, killed 475 more people in the country. By ANDREA PATTARO (AFP)

Western powers said they were on a war footing against the coronavirus as they unleashed nearly one trillion dollars to rescue the global economy, with Italy reporting the highest single-day death toll of the pandemic.

The spiralling crises in Europe, the United States and other countries contrast sharply with the improving situation in China.

China on Thursday reported zero new domestic cases for the first time since the outbreak first erupted in the central city of Wuhan in December.

But for most other places around the world, the pandemic was worsening quickly with the number of infections climbing above 200,000 and confirmed deaths nearing 9,000.

"I view (myself) as a, in a sense, a wartime president. I mean, that's what we're fighting," Donald Trump said Wednesday as he announced the deployment of military hospital ships to treat a fast-growing number of American patients.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel took a similar tone, echoing French President Emmanuel Macron who earlier this week compared the battle to war as he ordered his citizens to stay home.

Worldwide fatalities from the new coronavirus have topped 8,700 as of March 18, 2020.  By Joseph Prezioso (AFP) Worldwide fatalities from the new coronavirus have topped 8,700 as of March 18, 2020. By Joseph Prezioso (AFP)

"Not since the Second World War has our country faced a challenge that depends so much on our collective solidarity," Merkel said in a television address.

Dire news came out of Italy which reported 475 new deaths, the highest single-day toll of any country.

Italy has now recorded more than one-third of global deaths and has shut down all businesses and public gatherings -- steps that have been copied across the world.

"The main thing is, do not give up," Italian National Institute of Health chief Silvio Brusaferro told reporters.

Bank bazooka

With countries paralysed by the pandemic and stock markets imploding, policymakers have this week unleashed a wave of measures to shore up the global economy.

Countries and territories with confirmed new coronavirus cases and deaths, as of March 18 at 1700 GMT.  By  (AFP) Countries and territories with confirmed new coronavirus cases and deaths, as of March 18 at 1700 GMT. By (AFP)

The European Central Bank on Wednesday announced a 750-billion-euro bond-buying scheme, days after it unveiled a big-bank stimulus package that failed to calm anxious markets.

Trump signed a $100 billion emergency aid package that sailed through Congress to provide free coronavirus testing for those who need it, sick pay and paid family leave.

Trump also invoked a Korean War-era law that allows the government to compel businesses to sign contracts -- which can be used to expand production of necessities such as protective masks.

Australia's central bank cut rates to a new record low.

However the moves, like other emergency stimulus measures over recent week, failed to ease the sense of impending economic doom.

Asian markets took another beating on Thursday morning, with the Manila stock market initially plunging almost 25 percent after a two-day suspension.

Borders sealed

Countries are taking increasingly drastic steps to stem the flow of infections, with Australia on Thursday banning non-residents from arriving.

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)

Canada and the US said Wednesday they were closing their border -- the world's longest -- to all but essential travellers for 30 days.

Britain, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson had initially chosen a different path, followed the lead of his European counterparts and said schools would shut nationwide from Friday as the death toll topped 100.

The European Union this week imposed a 30-day ban on travellers from outside the bloc.

From the Channel to the French Riviera, police and soldiers are out in force.  By VALERY HACHE (AFP) From the Channel to the French Riviera, police and soldiers are out in force. By VALERY HACHE (AFP)

Within the bloc some countries have sealed borders, while bars, restaurants and most shops have closed their doors until further notice, bringing life in Europe's normally bustling cities to a halt.

The Eurovision song contest and European football tournaments have been suspended.

In Jerusalem's deserted Old City, bakery-owner Marwan Shawar summed up the mood in a sombre tone: The virus "is worse than war. It's more dangerous. We are fighting against something unknown. Invisible."

China milestone

Offering some hope for the rest of the world, the rise in infections and deaths have slowed in some China and some other parts of Asia.

China reported Thursday no new domestic cases for the first time since it started recording them in January.

An airport employee wears a face mask as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus at the O.R. Tambo international airport in Johannesburg.  By Luca Sola (AFP) An airport employee wears a face mask as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus at the O.R. Tambo international airport in Johannesburg. By Luca Sola (AFP)

About 56 million people in centra Hubei province and its capital, Wuhan, have been locked down since late January.

Authorities have started to ease travel restrictions in Hubei, allowing people who have jobs or other in other parts of the country to finally leave.

But China reported 34 that came from abroad -- the biggest daily increase in two weeks.

Concerned about the influx, Beijing and other regions in the country now require most international arrivals to quarantine in designated hotels for 14 days.

"We should never allow the hard-won and continuous positive trend to be reversed," President Xi Jinping said at a Communist Party leadership meeting.

In Japan, its northernmost main island of Hokkaido lifted a state of emergency declared last month, saying it sees signs of the outbreak tapering off.

Threats elsewhere

A member of hotel staff wearing a facemask amid concerns over the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus checks the temperature of South African cricket player Faf du Plessis upon his arrival at a hotel in Kolkata.  By Dibyangshu SARKAR (AFP) A member of hotel staff wearing a facemask amid concerns over the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus checks the temperature of South African cricket player Faf du Plessis upon his arrival at a hotel in Kolkata. By Dibyangshu SARKAR (AFP)

Still, the first reported infection on the tiny Pacific island and the first confirmed coronavirus death in Sub-Saharan Africa highlighted how the battles had only begun in other parts of the world.

The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, urged countries to "come together as one against a common enemy: an enemy against humanity."

He sounded a special alarm for Africa, saying the continent must "wake up" and prepare for the worst.

The first known fatality in sub-Saharan Africa was in Burkina Faso, with the death of the first-vice president of parliament.

A slew of Latin American countries announced nighttime curfews, with Chile declaring a "state of catastrophe", and Cuba and Costa Rica recording their first deaths.

burs-lth/rox/kma

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