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Italy records its deadliest day of coronavirus outbreak with 475 deaths

The Guardian logo The Guardian 18/03/2020 Jon Henley and Philip Oltermann
a group of people standing in front of a stone building: Photograph: Stefano Guidi/Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Stefano Guidi/Getty Images

Italy has suffered its deadliest day yet in the coronavirus outbreak and is poised to overtake China as the world’s worst affected country, as Europe tightened a lockdown affecting about 250 million people.

In all, 475 people died in Italy during the previous 24 hours, taking the overall death toll to 2,978, with almost 36,000 cases reported by Wednesday evening.

About 4,000 people have recovered, with 2,250 in intensive care.

Gallery: Facts about COVID-19 as per World Health Organization 

With an economic and social shutdown deepening across Europe, Angela Merkel described the coronavirus crisis as “the biggest challenge since the second world war”.

In a rare TV address to the nation, she appealed to citizens to help protect each other by restricting social interactions. All state-run attempts to curb the spread of Covid-19 would prove futile unless individuals changed their behaviour, Merkel said.

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“This is serious, so take it seriously,” the chancellor said in pre-recorded remarks that will go out on German television just before the night’s main news programmes.

“Since German reunification, actually, since the second world war, there has never been a challenge for our country in which acting in solidarity was so very crucial.”

Merkel said her government was focused on the main goal of “slowing down the spread of the virus, to stretch it out over months and thus win time”.

Describing Covid-19 as “an enemy against humanity”, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization’s director general, said Africa must “wake up and prepare”. Countries around the world must take a comprehensive approach, he said.

a tall building in a city: The centre of Brussels on Wednesday. Photograph: Isopix/Rex/Shutterstock © Provided by The Guardian The centre of Brussels on Wednesday. Photograph: Isopix/Rex/Shutterstock

“To suppress and control, countries must isolate, test, treat and trace,” Tedros said, adding that this strategy “must be the backbone of the response in every country”.

The International Labour Organization said the pandemic was becoming “a major labour-market and economic crisis” that would significantly increase global unemployment and risked leaving up to 25 million more people out of work as well as dramatically reducing workers’ incomes.

The coronavirus has infected more than 212,000 people worldwide and killed more than 8,700, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker. Outside China, where the virus originated, two-thirds of all cases and three-quarters of all deaths are in Europe, which has now recorded more than 3,800 deaths.

Belgium, which has reported 1,085 cases of Covid-19 and 10 deaths, became the latest EU state to confine its citizens on Wednesday, with all shops except supermarkets, pharmacies, banks and bookstores closing at midday and employees expected to work from home unless social distancing is guaranteed at work.

a group of people standing in front of a stone building: Soldiers guard the streets in Turin amid Italy’s nationwide lockdown. © Photograph: Stefano Guidi/Getty Images Soldiers guard the streets in Turin amid Italy’s nationwide lockdown.

“These decisions were not taken lightly, and were taken because we are obliged to by the evolving situation,” said the prime minister, Sophie Wilmès. “Success in our struggle against Covid-19 is inextricably linked to the efforts of each person.”

In Germany, which has reported 9,367 infections and 27 deaths, non-essential businesses and shops have shut, religious gatherings are banned and holiday travel has been halted.

Restrictions in both countries are still less severe than elsewhere. In France, where the daily update of its coronavirus cases had risen to 9,134, with 264 deaths, residents who leave home must now carry a form declaring they are outside for one of five permitted reasons, including to shop, work or visit the doctor.

More than 100,000 police officers are enforcing the regulations, with the fine for flouting them raised to €135 (£124). The health minister, Olivier Véran, said on Wednesday the country could hope to start seeing a slowdown of infections in eight to 12 days.

Javier Marion, the director of health in the Aragon region of Spain, broke down in tears during a news conference on Wednesday, while the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, told an audience of 28 MPs and five ministers in the near-empty 350-seat parliament that the nation needed to rally in what he called a “war” against the virus.

Spain, which has reported nearly 12,000 cases and nearly 500 deaths, is – like Italy and France – in near-total lockdown, and the consequences for the economy would be grave unless “major and irreparable damage” could be averted, Sánchez said.

“We have never lived through anything like this and our society, which had grown used to changes that expand our possibilities of knowledge, health and life, now finds itself in a war to defend all we have taken for granted,” he said.

Among other developments:

  • The pandemic is likely to take about two years to run its course and the virus will eventually infect 60-70% of the global population, according to Lothar Wieler, the head of Germany’s public health agency.

  • The US and Canada are temporarily closing the world’s longest border to non-essential traffic.

  • The president of Portugal declared a state of emergency.

  • Russian media have deployed a “significant disinformation campaign” against the west to worsen the impact of the coronavirus, according to an EU document.

  • Iran reported 147 more deaths from the coronavirus, its single biggest one-day jump, bringing the death toll to 1,135 people nationwide.

  • Imported coronavirus cases in China outnumbered cases of domestic transmission for the fifth straight day, with 12 of the country’s 13 new confirmed cases involving travellers from abroad.

  • Japan’s deputy prime minister, Taro Aso, said holding the Tokyo Olympics “would not make sense” if countries could not send their athletes.

The EU has so far struggled to find a coherent response to the outbreak, with countries imposing their own border checks in what is normally a zone of control-free travel, and restricting exports of vital medical equipment. But on Tuesday evening its leaders agreed in a video conference to close the external borders of most European countries to non-EU nationals for 30 days and establish fast-track lanes at the bloc’s internal frontiers to keep supplies of medicines and food moving.

In the US, where the number of infections is nearing 6,500, with the virus causing more than 100 deaths, the Trump administration pressed for enactment of a $1tn (£860bn) stimulus package to combat the devastating economic impact of the epidemic – possibly including direct payments of $1,000 to individual Americans.

New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, said he was considering whether to order the city’s 8.5 million residents to “shelter in place” at home, as state and local officials escalated social distancing policies by closing schools, restaurants and theatres.

Travellers across the world scrambled to find flights home as governments, including those of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Indonesia, urged their citizens to return home as soon as possible and several countries announced the imminent closure of airports.

Gallery: Coronavirus outbreak around the world in photos

Click or tap here for the latest travel advice for people travelling back to the UK from affected areas, including whether to self-isolate. If you think you have the virus, don't go to the GP or hospital, stay indoors and get advice online. Only call NHS 111 if you cannot cope with your symptoms at home; your condition gets worse; or your symptoms do not get better after seven days. In parts of Wales where 111 isn't available, call NHS Direct on 0845 46 47. In Scotland, anyone with symptoms is advised to self-isolate for seven days. In Northern Ireland, call your GP.

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