Coronavirus latest: Covid-19 cases in Spain rise 25% in 24 hours as outbreak worsens


Campaign to ‘clap for carers’ makes the rounds on UK social media

A message calling on those living in the UK to applaud health professionals and other carers has been making the rounds on social media.

The message below, which was shared on my North West London neighbourhood WhatsApp group and by a local Twitter account (see below), encourages Britons to show doctors, nurses, and others that they are “grateful”.

It has called on people to applaud from their “front doors, garden, balcony, windows and living room” on March 26 at 8pm. Similar measures have taken hold in other countries including Spain and France.

Coronavirus cases in Saudi Arabia rise by over 10 per cent

Ahmed Al Omran in Riyadh

Saudi Arabia announced 48 new cases of coronavirus on Saturday, bringing the total number of cases in the kingdom to 392.

A health ministry spokesman said Saturday that authorities have carried out around 22,000 tests so far that came back negative. Of the diagnosed cases, 16 people have fully recovered, he said.

The country has implemented strict measures to combat the coronavirus outbreak, including suspending international and domestic air travel, trains, buses and taxis; closing malls and mosques, and halting religious pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina.

Despite taking these steps, health officials say many cases reported in recent days are related to mixing with infected people at weddings, funerals and family gatherings. That has led to calls on social media for the imposition of a curfew if people continue to ignore official instructions.

OECD secretary-general says “war” on Covid-19 requires joint action

Angel Gurría, secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, has said that a highly ambitious global response is needed to overcome the coronavirus pandemic.

Ms Gurría described the outbreak as “the third and greatest economic, financial and social shock of the 21st Century,” after the September 11th attacks and the 2008 financial crisis.

The approach which she outlined would require co-operation at all levels, including national governments working together on research into vaccines and treatments, and on creating “an immediate buffer” to mitigate the economic damage.

Central banks also have a role to play, she said, ensuring the functioning of financial markets and services.

Finally, Ms Gurría highlighted the importance of restoring confidence. It suggested that measures such as removing trade restrictions would ease tensions which pre-dated Covid-19.

Ms Gurría said that the scope of the response went beyond previous actions.

“We need a level of ambition similar to that of the Marshall plan…and a vision akin to that of the New Deal, but now at the global level.”

Hungary’s Viktor Orban seeks new emergency powers

Valerie Hopkins in Budapest reports

Hungary’s government will seek to extend a state of emergency indefinitely and impose a raft of measures to combat coronavirus including jail time for people believed to have spread false information.

Prime minister Viktor Orban, who is currently serving his fourth term, asked the parliament to grant him the right to issue decrees to contain the pandemic, in draft legislation published late Friday.

The bill, which will be voted on next week, proposes a penalty of up to five years in prison for anyone deemed to be spreading fake news about the pandemic. One individual has already been detained for allegedly spreading false reports that there would be a full lockdown in the capital Budapest.

Mr Orban’s conservative Fidesz party has a two-thirds majority in parliament but the bill requires support from opposition groups in order to get the required 80 per cent support.

The draft legislation has raised concerns in Hungary, which is currently facing heightened EU scrutiny over the rule of law. A report published last week by V-Dem, an academic group based in Sweden’s University of Gothenburg, downgraded Hungary’s categorization this year to “electoral authoritarian regime,” the first inside the European Union.

Hungary, like many of its central European neighbours, closed most of its borders early in the week. The country currently has 103 registered cases of the coronavirus and four deaths.

Germany plans blow-out budget to save its economy

Guy Chazan in Berlin reports

Germany is set to abandon six years of fiscal restraint with a blow-out budget designed to save its economy from the brutal effects of the coronavirus pandemic and protect thousands of businesses from imminent ruin.

Angela Merkel’s cabinet is meeting on Monday to approve new borrowing of €356bn — equivalent to nearly 10 per cent of Germany’s gross domestic product — marking a new era in fiscal policy and a radical departure from Berlin’s long-held aversion to debt.

Ministers will consider plans for a €156bn supplementary budget for 2020, including a €50bn hardship fund to help small businesses and freelancers whose revenues are collapsing as the virus spreads.

They will also approve a €100bn economic stabilisation fund that will be used to take stakes in companies crippled by the fallout from the pandemic, according to a person familiar with the plans, paving the way for a radical state intervention in the workings of the market economy.

The blueprint also envisages a €100bn loan from the new stabilisation fund to the KfW, Germany’s state development bank, which is providing unlimited loans to firms facing a cash crunch under a programme announced by the finance minister Olaf Scholz earlier this month.

The stabilisation fund will also be equipped with €400bn in guarantees to underwrite the debts of companies affected by the turmoil.

The fund is a reactivation of Soffin, a government-backed vehicle set up in 2009 to bail out troubled banks. It will not only underwrite debts but also be able to inject fresh capital into stricken companies, effectively paving the way for a wave of partial state takeovers.

Just as the state helped the banks after the financial crisis, “we are now prepared to provide equity for the real economy”, Mr Scholz told German radio on Friday. The state had to help companies “that employ an incredible number of men and women and which all of a sudden have no business”.

Ukraine minister calls for ‘total full quarantine’

Roman Olearchyk in Kyiv

Arsen Avakov, Ukraine’s interior affairs minister, called for a nationwide “total full quarantine”, warning that strict lockdowns and possibly martial law would soon be declared to prevent an uncontrolled spike in the coronavirus which threatens to overwhelm the country’s dilapidated healthcare system.

“Only critically necessary business entities should work in the country, regardless of the form of ownership!” he said in a Facebook post on Saturday.

He added:

Critical industrial enterprises and infrastructure enterprises [will continue to operate] – the rest should be closed, and people should be quarantined at home … we will count losses and think about compensations later, when we survive!

Kyiv, the country’s capital city, will on Sunday prohibit use of public transportation for average residents, with the exception of workers in the healthcare system, pharmacies and grocery stores.

Mr Avakov’s comments came hours after the country’s government declared a state of emergency in Kyiv, and several provinces where officials tried to prevent full-blown outbreaks of Covid-19.

Ukraine’s health ministry on Saturday revealed 41 confirmed infections of the virus, nearly double the 26 detected as of the prior day. But limited testing has fuelled fears that infection rates are much higher and that the country’s stockpile of nearly 1,000 ventilators for infectious diseases are not enough for a population of 44m, including 9m pensioners.

The number of tests we have done, and the number of people identified as positive are so drastically fewer then all of the countries around us that it’s virtually impossible to be accurate

Dr Ulana Suprun, former health minister, told the Financial Times.

Belgian cases rise by over 500 in 24 hours

Jim Brunsden from Brussels

The total number of cases of coronavirus in Belgium rose by over 500 in 24 hours, a 25 per cent increase which brought the total number of confirmed cases up to 2,815. The government also reported deaths had risen to 67, an increase of 30 in the same time period.

A spokesman for the Belgian government’s crisis centre advised people to establish a clear daily routine to avoid mental health problems during confinement.

The authorities have placed a team of Red Cross volunteers on call to respond to those in distress because of the lockdown, which began on Wednesday. Social gatherings are banned, teleworking is compulsory for much of the population, and all non-essential shops are shut.

The crisis centre, in its daily press conference, urged people to avoid spending lots of time on social media, instead recommending activities such as cooking, DIY and reading.

A spokesperson for the centre also recommended that Belgians under lockdown reach out to those around them. “Do not remain alone with your emotions, talk about them.”

Spanish cases jump by 25 per cent in 24 hours

Daniel Dombey in Madrid

The number of documented Spanish cases of coronavirus has increased by almost 5,000 in 24 hours and more than 300 people have died from the virus in that time, according to figures released on Saturday.

The Spanish government said there were now 24,926 cases, with 1,612 people in intensive care and 1,326 deaths.

Compared with Friday’s figures, this represents a 25 per cent increase on the number of cases, a 40 per cent surge in people in intensive care and a 32 per cent increase in the death toll. Overall, 2,125 people have recovered.

Spain’s hospitals and intensive care units are struggling to cope, despite some Madrid hotels being temporarily converted and of the Fair of Madrid, the capital’s main exhibition space.

Madrid remains the worst affected part of the country, with 8,921 cases, 767 people in intensive care and 804 deaths.

Google revamps coronavirus search results after Trump comments

Google launched a dedicated website with information about the coronavirus alongside changes to its search results for the virus a week after President Donald Trump touted the company’s efforts to inform people about the disease.

The company has redesigned its search results pages for the virus including a sidebar with links to official health advice. “This new format organises the search results page to help people easily navigate information and resources”, wrote Google’s Emily Moxley in an online announcement.

The changes come a week after President Trump told reporters that 1,700 Google engineers were working on an online tool to help people find out if they should be tested for Covid-19. Google’s new website directs users to local health resources in each US state, with plans to expand to other jurisdictions, but does not offer the personalised testing advice Mr Trump described. The site also includes resources for online education as well as links to Youtube videos on working from home and cooking with non-perishable food items.

Google’s fellow Alphabet Inc subsidiary Verily has said it is working with California health officials to help deliver coronavirus testing, with the programme now open in some counties in the San Francisco Bay area.

Hong Kong re-imposes partial lockdown to fight ‘second wave’ of outbreak

Nicolle Liu reports from Hong Kong:

Hong Kong has resumed a partial lockdown as the number of confirmed cases imported from abroad has increased sharply, highlighting the ‘second wave’ of the outbreak that is sweeping across Asia.

Carrie Lam, the territory’s chief executive, announced from Monday onwards, public recreational facilitates such as sport grounds and museums will be shut again and civil servants work-from-home arrangement will recommence. Private companies would be encouraged to follow, Ms Lam said.

Kevin Yeung, the Secretary for Education, said schools will remain closed until further notice and public exams scheduled to start next week are postponed for a month and oral assessment will be cancelled.

“The epidemic from imported cases, is more severe and harder to deal with compared to any time in the past two months, and have a much higher chance to lead to a community outbreak,” said Ms Lam

The total of confirmed and probable cases in Hong Kong have reached 294, with most of the recent infections occurring in those coming from abroad or their close contacts.

Coronavirus testing will be expanded to asymptomatic elderly individuals or those who are living with them returning from high risk areas from aboard, said Sophia Chan, the Secretary for Food and Health.

Ms Lam added that the government is ramping up law enforcement towards those who violate compulsory quarantine orders imposed to all arrivals from all countries and jurisdictions, except Taiwan and Macau, to Hong Kong. Authorities have found seven cases allegedly breaching the rules and they will be prosecuted accordingly, she said.

WHO launches WhatsApp service to fight Covid-19 fake news

The World Health Organization announced that it is launching a messenger service via WhatsApp to directly provide the public with information about Covid-19.

The service offers up-to-date statistics, details on symptoms, advice on how to guard against the virus and a list of common rumours and misinformation.

False news and information about Covid-19 have been rife. While social media platforms have been one vector, campaigns spreading fake narratives and inaccurate advice have also used encrypted messenger apps and traditional SMS texting.

While Facebook and Twitter have said that there is no evidence of state-backed campaigns on their open platforms, the provenance of much misinformation remains unclear.

World Health Organization announces WhatsApp messenger service

The World Health Organization announced that it is launching a messenger service via WhatsApp to directly provide the public with information about Covid-19.

The service offers up-to-date statistics, details on symptoms, advice on how to guard against the virus and a list of common rumours and misinformation.

False news and information about Covid-19 have been rife. While social media platforms have been one vector, campaigns spreading fake narratives and inaccurate advice have also used encrypted messenger apps and traditional SMS texting.

While Facebook and Twitter have said that there is no evidence of state-backed campaigns on their open platforms, the provenance of these messages remains extremely difficult to discover.

Europe — what you might have missed

• The United Arab Emirates has been taking steps to seal off the Gulf’s commercial centre, barring the entry of tourists and the return of residents from outside the country.

• Millions of Iranians have travelled over the past four days as the Islamic republic began new year celebrations on Friday despite warnings by health officials to stay home and self-quarantine to curtail the spread of coronavirus.

• Migrant workers are streaming out of Mumbai, returning to their home villages across India, as the state of Maharashtra shuts down most workplaces until at least March 31 to try to stop the worsening outbreak.

Bangkok’s regional government on Saturday ordered the closure of shopping malls, non-food markets, barber shops, swimming pools and most other public venues from Sunday in a bid to contain the spread of the virus.

United Airlines plans to cut international flight capacity for April by 95 per cent, the company said on Friday.

Covid-19 case count jumps to more than 277,000

Steve Bernard, data visualisation journalist, reports:

Global health authorities reported more than 30,000 new Covid-19 cases on Friday, the largest increase to date, in a sign the pandemic is continuing to escalate.

There were 30,655 new infections reported, bringing the global tally to 277,245, according to Financial Times calculations.

The death toll jumped by 1,356 to greater than 11,000. Italy accounted for almost half of the new fatalities.

The rate of recoveries has continued to grow this past week, with 3,411 patients reporting being free of the virus. The total of recovered cases now stands at 91,989.

All the latest data is available on the FT coronavirus tracker.

UK manufacturer ramps up ventilator output

Smiths Group announced plans to boost production of ventilators as part of the UK’s efforts to meet demand for the medical device, which is crucial for treating many critically-ill coronavirus patients.

The FTSE 100 engineering company said it will boost output at its facility in Luton. Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week appealed to British industrial firms to build tens of thousands of ventilators for the NHS. Smiths said it will also contribute technical advice to the national manufacturing effort.

Global demand for ventilators has risen sharply since the coronavirus outbreak began. Countries including Germany and Italy have moved to increase production and some nations have limited exports of the devices, promoting concerns over the global supply.

Andrew Reynolds Smith, CEO of Smiths, said:

During this time of national and global crisis it is our duty to assist in the efforts being made to tackle this devastating pandemic… We are doing everything possible to substantially increase production of our ventilators at our Luton site and worldwide.

Iranian president says armed forces have completed 7 makeshift hospitals and 3,000 beds

Monavar Khalaj in Tehran

Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani said the country’s armed forces had so far set up 7 makeshift hospitals, 3,000 beds and new centres to look after patients who were discharged from hospitals but still need care.

The president added that the number of hospitals could increase to as much as 20 if needed.

Makeshift beds have also been set up in the 1.4m square metre Iran Mall. The shopping complex volunteered earlier this week to set up 3,000 beds to assist the country’s healthcare network.

Experts warn that a second peak of infections could be expected when millions of Iranian travellers return home after the new year holidays in early April.

Iran’s health ministry said that fatalities reached 1,556 on Saturday, rising from 1,433 on Friday. The numbers testing positive increased for the virus increased from 19,644 to 20,610.

Turkish president issues health advice via voicemail

Laura Pitel in Ankara

Mobile phone users across Turkey will receive a voice message from president Recep Tayyip Erdogan urging them to stay indoors and practice good hygiene.

A Turkish official said that the measure was aimed at ensuring that vital public health messages reached older citizens who were less likely to use social media and the internet.

The initiative came as the number of deaths from coronavirus in Turkey more than doubled to nine people, while the number of confirmed cases rose by 87 per cent to 670.

ADIB takes measures to ease burden on customers hit by coronavirus

Simeon Kerr in Dubai

Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank has offered to postpone April payments for its personal finance customers as United Arab Emirates institutions take steps to ease the burden on customers hit by the coronavirus fallout.

ADIB also said on Saturday that it would offer 5 per cent cash back per month on grocery and utility bills.

The measures come after Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank conditionally offered from April 2 to defer loan payments and waive interest for up to six months. The lender said it would defer payments and waive interest charges for three months to anyone placed on unpaid leave because of the outbreak.

The UAE central bank last week launched a 100bn dirham ($27bn) relief package to allow banks to ease the burden on retail and corporate clients, but struggling companies and individuals have complained that some lenders have been reluctant to pass along any benefits.

UK government prepares taxpayer injection for airlines

David Crow in New York and Jim Pickard in London report

The UK government is drawing up plans to buy equity stakes in airlines and other companies hardest hit by the coronavirus crisis after being warned that the economic packages it has announced so far will not be enough to save them.

The plans would see the UK taxpayer inject billions of pounds into companies, including British Airways, in exchange for shares that would eventually be sold back to private investors, according to three people briefed on the proposals.

Two of the people said the government was contemplating the move after being warned by bankers that the support it has already unveiled — including £330bn of loan guarantees — would not be enough to stave off the collapse of companies that had seen their revenues all but evaporate.

To read more on this story click here.

Bundesbank head expresses discomfort over ECB’s €750bn asset splurge

Martin Arnold reports from Frankfurt

The head of Germany’s central bank has said “extraordinary measures” are needed to deal with the economic turmoil of the coronavirus pandemic, while warning they must be unwound once the crisis is over.

Jens Weidmann, president of the Bundesbank, hinted at his discomfort with the vast €750bn of extra asset purchases announced by the European Central Bank after an emergency call with other governing council members on Wednesday night.

“We discussed very extensively, different perspectives were presented and different approaches to solutions,” Mr Weidmann told Die Welt newspaper. “Regardless of differences in individual points, we agree that there is a need for action and that extensive measures are important.”

The Bundesbank boss, along with the heads of the Dutch and Austrian central banks, expressed their dissent on both the size of the ECB’s extra asset purchases and its indication that long-standing limits on the programme could be lifted if needed.

Admitting that a recession was “now inevitable” in Germany, Mr Weidmann praised the “quick and correct” actions of the country’s government to lock down most activity to contain the spread of coronavirus.

“Monetary policy supports, but this time it cannot be at the forefront of defense,” he said, adding that Germany’s many years of running budget surpluses put it in “a good starting position” to deal with the economic impact of the virus.

He said that “if additional funds are needed” by more heavily indebted countries to finance their response to the crisis, “it is up to politicians in Europe to decide on aid in solidarity”. In an apparent reference to the European Stability Mechanism, the region’s €500bn bail-out fund, he added: “Instruments for this were created in the last crisis.”

Mr Weidmann has long opposed the ECB’s bond-buying programme, arguing it infringes on EU laws against monetary financing of governments. The central bank has already bought €2.6tn of bonds to keep borrowing costs low across the bloc and after its latest temporary expansion it is set to buy another €1tn this year.

United Arab Emirates moves to seal its borders

The United Arab Emirates has been taking gradual steps to seal off the Gulf’s commercial centre, barring the entry of tourists and the return of residents from outside the country, Simeon Kerr reports from Dubai.

From Saturday, nationals from other Arab Gulf states will also be blocked from the UAE until a coronavirus screening mechanism is approved.

State media on Saturday reported the UAE’s first coronavirus fatalities, saying that two people had died on Friday. The UAE has 140 confirmed cases of Covid-19.

Millions of Iranians defy health officials to travel for new year

Monavar Khalaj reports from Tehran

Millions of Iranians have travelled over the past four days as the Islamic republic began new year celebrations on Friday despite warnings by health officials to stay home and self-quarantine to curtail the spread of coronavirus.

The acting head of the Iranian Red Crescent Society, Karim Hemmati, said on Saturday that 970,000 vehicles had left 13 provinces between March 17 and 20, amounting to almost 3m people on the move to celebrate Nowruz, the Iranian new year.

He complained that Iranians did not heed an appeal by the country’s health officials not to travel and added that about 2,400 of these people had been found with early symptoms of the virus, such as fever and coughs, at health-check roadblocks, the semi-official Fars news agency reported on Saturday.

Meanwhile, a second package of medical equipment, including masks and sanitisers, arrived from Qatar on Saturday, according to domestic media.

Iran, which is under the tough US sanctions after US President Donald Trump’s decision to abandon the nuclear deal agreed between the Islamic republic and world powers, has asked the world for international assistance to secure equipment such as test kits, ventilators, protective clothing against hazardous materials, gloves and masks.

Food and medicine are not subject to the sanctions but imports face obstacles and delays because Iran is cut off from the international financial system.

US politicians urge Twitter to ban Chinese diplomats’ accounts

US political pressure is building on Twitter to ban use of the social media platform by Chinese diplomats, some of whom have used it to spread conspiracy theories blaming the global coronavirus pandemic on the US military, Tom Mitchell reports.

In a letter to Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey released on Saturday, two US politicians, Ben Sasse and Mike Gallagher, said Chinese diplomats were using Twitter, which is blocked in China, to “disseminate propaganda … [that] obscures and confuses users over the origins of Covid-19 and potentially undermines efforts to contain and control the outbreak”.

Chinese diplomats and other government officials use special software to bypass the “great firewall” that censors Twitter and many other foreign social media sites in China.

“Access to social media platforms should be denied to government officials from countries that prohibit their own populations from accessing this content,” Mr Sasse, a Nebraska senator, and Mr Gallagher, a Wisconsin House member, added. Both are Republicans.

Increasingly bitter exchanges between Washington and Beijing about the origins of the disease, which US President Donald Trump publicly refers to as “the Chinese virus”, have become intertwined with the expulsions of dozens of Chinese and US journalists over recent weeks.

On Friday, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman asked if the Trump administration’s recent expulsion of 60 Chinese journalists was “an attempt to block access to information on the epidemic in the US”.

He added: “Did the US anticipate that the epidemic would spread at home in a month and fear that the Chinese media would expose the situation … are they trying to hide anything?”

On Saturday, the Chinese foreign ministry’s chief spokesperson, Hua Chunying, took to Twitter to mock the Trump administration’s much-criticised handling of the worsening pandemic within its own borders, as China reported no new cases from internal transmission for the third straight day.

“US AID promised to give some medical supplies to China, but was not ready until March 11,” Ms Hua wrote. “Given the fast spreading of the pandemic around the world, we have thanked the US and suggested to give them to those more needed [sic] asap.”

Bangkok orders closure of most stores and public venues from Sunday

John Reed reports from Bangkok

Bangkok’s regional government on Saturday ordered the closure of shopping malls, non-food markets, barber shops, swimming pools and most other public venues from Sunday in a bid to contain the spread of the Covid-19 outbreak.

Supermarkets and food markets will remain open in the Thai capital, where 8m people live, and restaurants will be allowed to offer only take-away service.

Thailand, with an economy that relies heavily on tourism and hospitality, has been slower than most other countries to order businesses to shut in response to the pandemic.

The kingdom reported 89 new cases of the coronavirus on Saturday, the biggest daily jump yet, bringing the total to 411.

On Friday evening the Bank of Thailand cut the main lending rate to a record low of 0.75 per cent at a special meeting in an effort to mitigate the impact of the outbreak on south-east Asia’s second-biggest economy.

India turns back KLM plane full of stranded citizens

Amy Kazmin reports from New Delhi

A KLM flight carrying 100 Indians rushing home before their country locks down its borders was forced to turn back mid-way, after it being denied permission to land amid confusion by Indian officials in interpreting their own restrictions and travel advisories.

India will not permit any incoming passenger flights to land after midnight tonight, and Indians across the world are racing to get home on the few commercial flights still available before the deadline.

But the Indian government had also previously announced that no travellers coming from hard-hit European countries – even Indian citizens – would be allowed to enter the country after Wednesday.

Most of the Indian travellers on the KLM plane had flown in from North America and were transiting in Amsterdam, and were due to land in India just ahead of the closure. But the plane was turned back while flying over Russia, after Indian aviation authorities decided that the ban on passengers from Europe would apply to the KLM flight.

Foreign ministry officials had previously assured the airline that the plane would be permitted to land, as the passengers had only transited in Amsterdam.

In videos posted on Twitter, Indian passengers now stranded at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport beg the Indian government for help, and permission to return home.

Many Dutch citizens trying to leave India were awaiting the arrival of the flight, which was set to ferry them back home.

Indian authorities have said they are trying to resolve the issue.

Taiwan to extend stays for foreigners stranded by dearth of flights

Taiwan is allowing all foreigners legally in the country to stay three months longer in response to the cuts in global flights, Kathrin Hille reports from Taipei.

For all foreign citizens who were in Taiwan under a visa waiver programme or a visa or arrival visa that had not yet expired as of March 21, their permit to stay would be extended automatically by up to 180 days, the foreign ministry said on Saturday.

The visa relaxation comes as growing numbers of travellers find themselves stranded in various countries after many governments imposed entry and exit bans and airlines cut most international flights.

Taiwan suspended entry for practically all foreign citizens earlier this week as it is being hit by a second wave of imported infections that more than doubled its confirmed case count to 153 and threatens to derail its earlier successful containment of the virus.

The Epidemic Command Centre announced 18 new confirmed cases on Saturday. All are people infected abroad, with six having returned from the UK, five from the US, and the rest from other European countries, Egypt and South Africa.

Of the 18 people, 11 were diagnosed while under a broadened screening and isolation programme the government imposed this week targeting people who arrived since the beginning of the month, during the period when the pandemic escalated in Europe and America.

All but one are Taiwanese who came back from study, work or group travel abroad.

India fears coronavirus spread as migrant workers evacuate Mumbai

Amy Kazmin reports from New Delhi

Migrant workers are streaming out of Mumbai, returning to their home villages across India, as the state of Maharashtra shuts down most workplaces until at least March 31 to try to stop the worsening coronavirus outbreak.

The mass exodus of the taxi drivers, auto rickshaw drivers and other workers who normally keep India’s financial capital humming saw thousands of people packing themselves into crowded trains ahead of Sunday’s “people’s curfew,” when both long-distance and local train services are being drastically reduced.

There is concern that some of those now leaving the city could already be infected with the coronavirus and will unwittingly spread the disease to their relatively impoverished home communities, where ramshackle rural health care infrastructure would struggle to cope with critically ill patients.

About 4.6m of Mumbai’s 18m residents were migrants from other parts of India, according to 2011 census data.

In Maharashtra, authorities have ordered all businesses and workplaces – except shops selling essential items such as milk, food and pharmaceuticals – to close down.

India is also gearing up for a nationwide, one-day “people’s curfew tomorrow,” during which the prime minister, Narendra Modi, has appealed to the entire population to stay home.

India’s Tata Motors to reduce production to “skeletal” level

Benjamin Parkin reports from Mumbai

India’s Tata Motors said it was scaling down operations at one of its main manufacturing plants ahead of a potential closure.

Tata Motors managing director Guenter Butschek said the company would reduce operations at its plant in Pune to “skeletal” levels by Monday, and be ready to close entirely by Tuesday if necessary.

Pune is located in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, which has been hardest hit by the virus in India.

Maharashtra has at least 49 of India’s 271 confirmed cases, prompting the local government to order the closure of all workplaces.

Part of the Tata Group, Tata Motors is one of India’s largest vehicle manufacturers and the owner of Jaguar Land Rover.

JLR said this week it was closing all UK facilities until mid-April.

India to expand coronavirus testing as officials brace for surge

Stephanie Findlay reports from New Delhi

India’s coronavirus cases climbed to 271 on Saturday, the health ministry said, as the country announced it would expand testing to all serious pneumonia cases and braced for a surge in infections.

India has tested fewer than 15,000 people for coronavirus since the global outbreak began, an amount equivalent to the daily capacity of South Korea.

The severity of the crisis has hit the country’s political class after Bollywood singer Kanika Kapoor tested positive for coronavirus and was booked for negligence, the Press Trust of India reported. The singer had recently attended a series of gatherings where political leaders were in attendance.

“For the past 4 days I have had signs of flu, I got myself tested and it came positive for Covid-19,” said Ms Kapoor in a statement on Instagram. “My family and I are in complete quarantine now and following medical advice on how to move forward.”

In response to Ms Kapoor’s diagnosis, the former chief minister of Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje, said she was voluntarily in quarantine after attending a dinner with Ms Kapoor.

As India prepares to do a countrywide curfew on Sunday, its biggest private airline, IndiGo, said it would operate only 60 per cent of its normal domestic schedule.

“Most of our international flights are suspended and additionally, given the reduction in domestic demand, we are trimming our domestic India operations by approximately 25% for now,” said the carrier in a statement on Friday.

Singapore reports its first deaths in coronavirus outbreak

Singapore has announced the country’s first two fatalities caused by coronavirus, Stefania Palma reports.

A 75-year-old Singaporean woman with a history of hypertension and chronic heart disease died after 26 days in a hospital intensive care unit, authorities said.

The second fatality was a 64-year-old Indonesian man with a history of heart disease who arrived in the city-state on March 13 and was admitted in an ICU on the same day.

“We are deeply saddened by their passing,” said Gan Kim Yong, Singapore’s health minister.

“I understand that Singaporeans will be affected by this news,” he added. “But we must take courage and continue to play our part to fight this virus.”

United Arab Emirates reports first coronavirus fatalities

The United Arab Emirates has announced its first coronavirus fatalities, state-run media reported on Saturday.

The official WAM news agency said a 78-year-old man who had arrived in the country from a trip to Europe had died on Friday from a heart attack “coinciding with complications from the coronavirus disease”.

A 58-year-old foreign resident who had prior chronic illnesses also died on Friday, the agency reported.

The UAE has 140 confirmed cases of Covid-19, with 31 recoveries, according to health ministry data.

United Airlines to reduce flights by 95% as demand plunges

United Airlines plans to cut international flight capacity for April by 95 per cent, the company said on Friday, Claire Bushey reports from Chicago.

The Chicago-based carrier and its competitors are suffering from the sudden, precipitous drop in demand for air travel as governments restrict travel and consumers shy away from it as the coronavirus spreads.

The airline industry is seeking a $50bn bailout from US taxpayers, and United’s top executives said Friday the company will cut payroll if it does not receive the aid.

The airline will end service on almost all transatlantic routes on March 22, southbound departures to Latin America on March 24 and trans-Pacific routes on March 25. One or two routes will remain open in each region a few days longer, and United will continue limited service to Mexico and Guam.

All service to Canada will be suspended on April 1.

The airline said it was working with the federal and local governments to gain permission to operate in areas with travel restrictions to bring stranded customers back to the US.

New Zealand reports 13 more coronavirus cases

New Zealand’s health ministry reported on Saturday that 13 new cases of coronavirus had been confirmed in the past 24 hours.

The patients are in Wellington, Auckland, Waikato, Taupo, Manawatu and Nelson.

The country now has 52 confirmed cases and four others that are “probable”, authorities said.

“Most of these cases are travel-related but as yet, in at least two instances, no link to overseas travel has been ascertained and we are continuing to investigate,” the ministry said in a statement.

“We always knew cases apparently not linked to imported cases would happen and we are prepared,” the country’s director-general of health, Ashley Bloomfield, said in a statement posted on the ministry’s website.

Pakistan coronavirus cases rise sharply to 450

Farhan Bokhari reports from Islamabad

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Pakistan shot up to more than 450 with three deaths, prompting urgent calls for the country to intensify its response to the outbreak.

Saturday’s toll is more than five times the number of cases reported just a week ago, according to senior government and health officials.

The sharp increase has been largely attributed to Muslim pilgrims who returned from Iran, according to one senior government official in the south-western city of Quetta.

“It took us time to enforce strict quarantine facilities at Taftan,” he said, referring to Pakistan’s main border crossing along the Iranian border.

In Taftan, many pilgrims were kept quarantined in dirty camps, crammed together in tents with little access to facilities, a situation that has underlined the country’s lack of resources to deal with the crisis.

Health officials have said many of those who traveled to Iran have eventually returned to parts of the southern Sindh province, the region home to more than half of Pakistan’s confirmed cases.

Prime minister Imran Khan’s government has ordered the closure of all schools and colleges until early April and delayed high school examinations.

On Friday, a leading businessman told the FT that the outbreak has had “a devastating impact on Pakistan just at the wrong time” as the country is in the middle of a $6bn IMF lending programme that started in 2019.

On Tuesday, the central bank’s decision to lower interest rates by 75 basis points to 12.5 per cent disappointed many business people who wanted significantly larger cuts.

“We are in a state of war. Pakistan needs to fight this war as it should be fought” said the businessman.

New cases of coronavirus in South Korea top 100

South Korea on Saturday reported more than 100 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus, fuelling concerns about new cluster infections and imported cases, Song Jung-a reports from Seoul.

The 147 new cases brought the country’s total number of infections to 8,799, according to the Korea Centres for Disease Control and prevention. The sharp increase in new infections came after the daily infection rate fell to double digits this week, except on Wednesday.

Many of the new confirmed patients were elderly people in rest homes in the country’s southeast region, which has been at the centre of the virus outbreak.

A 20-year-old man in Seoul who had recently visited Canada also tested positive.

Eight more deaths were reported, bringing the total number of fatalities to 102, mostly elderly patients with underlying illnesses.

The pace of daily new infections has shown signs of slowing since the second week of March but health authorities remain on high alert over new clusters of infections.

Prime Minister Chung Se-kyun said on Saturday the government would use up to Won3.8tn ($3bn) in disaster funds to support small merchants and self-employed and low-income people affected by the fast spread of Covid-19.

Hong Kong sees spike as China reports no new cases for 3rd day

China reported no new domestically transmitted cases of coronavirus for the third consecutive day on Friday, according to the National Health Commission, Nicolle Liu and Tom Mitchell report.

The commission said 41 new confirmed cases were reported on Friday, all of them imported. China’s total number of confirmed cases now stands at 81,008 with 3,255 deaths.

No new confirmed cases were found in Hubei province, Chinese authorities added.

Beijing accounted for 14 of the 41 imported cases in China. Fears of a surge in the capital sparked by people returning from overseas has led to the imposition of strict new quarantine measures.

Meanwhile Hong Kong reported its largest single day increase in new cases, with 48 recorded on Friday.

As in China and other countries across the region, the Chinese territory is now focused on a “second wave” of infections carried by people returning from overseas.

Authorities said 35 of Friday’s new cases in Hong Kong were imported. Since Thursday all people arriving in the territory have been required to quarantine themselves for 14 days.

Sydney’s famous Bondi Beach closed over social distancing outcry

Jamie Smyth reports from Sydney

Authorities have temporarily closed Sydney’s famous Bondi Beach following strong criticism of people who broke social distancing rules by gathering in large numbers to enjoy the sunny weather.

Australia’s health minister, Greg Hunt, said on Saturday the overwhelming majority of Australians were trying to slow the spread of the coronavirus but warned some people were “breaking the rules” and must stop. “What happened at Bondi was unacceptable,” he said.

Bondi’s famous white sand, crescent-shaped beach was packed with people on Friday, as a spell of hot weather encouraged beachgoers to enjoy the sun.

Photographs and videos of the crowds circulated on social media shortly after Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, introduced new rules on social distancing in a bid to stop the rapid increase in positive cases in Australia, which are now at least 874.

Meanwhile, on Saturday the state of Victoria announced a A$1.7bn “economic survival and jobs package”, which includes full payroll tax refunds for small and medium sized businesses for the 2019-2020 financial year.

Honduras imposes ‘absolute’ curfew on its citizens

Jude Webber reports from Mexico City

Honduras imposed a nationwide “absolute curfew” on its citizens from 6pm until March 29 in a bid to contain the spread of coronavirus in the Central American country.

The government said in a statement that the national supplier of basic products, Banasupro, would tour neighbourhoods to serve customers.

Supermarkets, pharmacies, tortilla shops, grocery stores and fast food delivery outlets would be authorised to make home deliveries, provided they showed identification to the police. Honduras has 24 confirmed cases.

The agricultural and agribusiness sector, as well as food delivery companies, are exempt from the measure. The government has closed all its borders – land, sea and air – but freight is still allowed.

GM to aid medical ventilator manufacturing

Claire Bushey reports from Chicago

General Motors said on Friday it would help a suburban Seattle manufacturer produce medical ventilators faster to help US efforts to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

The car maker said it would consult on logistics, purchasing and manufacturing to help Ventec Life Systems scale up its operations.

Earlier on Friday, Donald Trump cited GM at a White House briefing when asked which US companies the administration had asked to make healthcare equipment like ventilators and face masks.

“With GM’s help, Ventec will increase ventilator production,” said Chris Kiple, Ventec’s chief executive, on Friday. “By tapping their expertise, GM is enabling us to get more ventilators to more hospitals much faster. This partnership will save lives.”

Mr Kiple told the Seattle Times earlier this week that the company has struggled to ramp up production because of its sprawling global supply chain.

GM, along with Ford, has had discussions this week with the federal government about using the automakers’ manufacturing capacity to make breathing equipment for patients suffering from Covid-19.

The plan raised questions not only because making medical devices calls for different equipment and manufacturing parameters than making cars, but because the Detroit Three shut their US plants this week in an attempt to slow the spread of the pandemic.

Mary Barra, GM’s chief executive, said: “We will continue to explore ways to help in this time of crisis.”

Singapore reports 40 new cases of coronavirus

Singapore reported 40 new cases of coronavirus by midnight Friday, according to the city-state’s health ministry.

Officials confirmed 30 imported and 10 local cases of Covid-19 infection in Singapore. The imported cases had travel history to Europe, North America, Asean countries and other parts of Asia.

All except one were returning residents, the ministry said.

Asia: what you might have missed

US stocks notched up their biggest weekly drop since the financial crisis, with actions by central banks to support economies and financial markets hit by the coronavirus pandemic failing to push Wall Street higher on Friday.

A staffer in the office of US vice-president Mike Pence has tested positive for the coronavirus, according to a spokeswoman.

Illinois governor JB Pritzker issued a “shelter in place” order Friday, making it the third state after California and New York to tell residents to stay home.

Delta Air Lines forecast second quarter revenue would be $10bn less than a year earlier and revealed it was burning through $50m in cash a day. The Atlanta-based airline is suspending dividend payments and share buybacks as it tries to preserve cash in the wake of the swift decline in air traffic wrought by Covid-19.

At least 22 people who travelled with Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro to meet his US counterpart, Donald Trump, in Florida earlier this month have tested positive for coronavirus. Both presidents say they tested negative, but on Friday Mr Bolsonaro said he may do another test.

Greece‘s central bank has slashed its economic growth forecast for 2020 from 2.4 per cent to zero, warning that output in the first two quarters could plunge as the coronavirus outbreak picked up pace.

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