France’s armed forces ministry on Friday said it had bought a consignment of the anti-malarial drug chloroquine from China as a precaution in case it becomes an approved medication for the coronavirus, an idea dismissed by many experts.
The ministry made the statement following a viral video on social media showing packages marked as chloroquine destined for the French army.
“Against the background of strong tensions in the provisioning of pharmaceutical materials, the armed forces ministry carried out a purchase as a precaution,” it said, confirming that the purchase had been from China.
It said the purchased drug would be ready “if ever chloroquine is authorised by the health authorities as useful for fighting against COVID-19,” it added.
There has been impassioned debate in France on the effectiveness of chloroquine in treating the coronavirus, a cause championed by Professor Didier Raoult, a prominent but controversial Marseille-based doctor.
President Donald Trump has also backed the idea. But France has only authorised its use for treating the gravest virus cases and a recent US study linked chloroquine to a higher death rate.
In the video on social media, a voice can be saying that the consignment amounts to 70 kilogrammes and was destined for the army’s central pharmacy. The ministry, however, could not confirm how much of the substance was imported.
Four French soldiers deployed in the Sahel region of western Africa in France’s anti-jihadist Barkhane force tested positive earlier this month for coronavirus.
Moreover, nearly half of the 2,300 sailors who were aboard France’s aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle and support craft when a coronavirus outbreak occurred at sea have tested positive for the virus.
France said on Wednesday it would extend a lockdown aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus as the death toll soared across Europe and the US — and experts warned the looming global recession could be the worst in decades.
Governments are grappling with how to balance public safety against the devastating economic impact of stay-at-home orders that have erased millions of jobs in a matter of weeks.
More than 80,000 people worldwide have died in the virus crisis, which has sent the global economy spiralling and forced billions of people to remain at home as much as possible.
As the economic downturn starts to bite, health experts stressed that any premature loosening of restrictions could accelerate the spread of a contagion that has already infiltrated nearly every country.
In France, one of the hardest-hit nations in Europe with more than 10,000 deaths, President Emmanuel Macron will address the nation next week to explain the path forward.
The confinement order issued on March 17 “will be extended” beyond the current deadline of April 15, an official close to Macron told AFP.
Italy and Spain are still recording hundreds of deaths a day, though the situation is also deteriorating in Britain, which saw a record 938 fatalities Wednesday as Prime Minister Boris Johnson spent a third day in intensive care.
The 55-year-old leader’s condition is “improving” and he is in “good spirits”, officials assured the public.
In New York, the epicentre of the US outbreak, the state’s governor noted the new single-day high for virus deaths at 779, but offered an optimistic view for the weeks to come.
“We are flattening the curve,” Andrew Cuomo told reporters, as he cited a decreasing hospitalisation rate due to stay-at-home orders.
In the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the novel coronavirus first emerged in December, there was cause for celebration as a ban on outbound travel was lifted.
Malta meanwhile joined the ranks of those in mourning, recording its first death — a 92-year-old woman with underlying conditions.
Global trade to plummet
The head of the World Trade Organization, Roberto Azevedo, issued a dire warning, saying the economic fallout from the health emergency could be “the deepest economic recession or downturn of our lifetimes”.
Global trade growth could plunge by up to a third this year, according to the WTO.
Germany and France, the EU’s two largest economies, are bracing for a painful hit.
Gross domestic product in export powerhouse Germany is expected to shrink by nearly 10 percent in the second quarter, the country’s leading research institutes said.
France meanwhile is already in a technical recession, the Bank of France said. Its first-quarter performance was its worst since 1945.
But officials at the US Federal Reserve said the wide-ranging shuttering of businesses should not have the lasting impact that was seen in the wake of the global financial crisis in 2008.
As some European countries weighed easing lockdown measures to allow economic activity to resume in earnest, the World Health Organization urged against it.
“Now is not the time to relax measures,” said WHO’s Europe director Hans Kluge.
“It is the time to once again double and triple our collective efforts to drive towards suppression with the whole support of society.”
Stages of grief
Around the world, medical staff are bearing a heavy physical and emotional toll as they work in overflowing intensive care units and makeshift hospitals erected in sports stadiums, on ships and even in a New York cathedral.
In Spain, home to the world’s second deadliest outbreak, another 757 deaths were reported Wednesday, bringing the toll up for a second day after several days of decline.
Antonio Alvarez, a 33-year-old nurse at a Barcelona hospital, described his experience as akin to bereavement.
“I’ve had my phases of anger, of denial, you go through all of them,” he told AFP. “Now we are still a little overwhelmed but it is better. Fewer patients are dying.”
In Italy, police have started to tighten lockdown controls as cabin fever and a slowing of the death toll tempted residents out in increasing numbers.
“The only weapon we have is social distancing, respect for the rules,” Health Minister Roberto Speranza said.
Meanwhile, many Jews around the world marked the start of Passover without the large family gatherings normally organised for the seder meal, with some turning to virtual platforms.
“The Passover holiday is celebrated with friends and families,” Yigel Niasoff, 45, told AFP from his balcony in New York’s Crown Heights neighbourhood.
“Right now with the pandemic, it’s a very, very sad time.”
Governments worldwide are rolling out staggering stimulus measures to ease the economic pain.
In Washington, Democrats demanded an additional $500 billion to battle the crisis, doubling the government’s request to help small businesses and imperilling the rapid approval of emergency aid lawmakers sought this week.
The eurozone is also mired in bickering over a bailout plan for its hard-hit members that would come on top of measures enacted by individual governments.
Finance ministers were unable to bridge divides after 16 hours of talks that will resume Thursday.
The markets continued their volatile movement, with the Dow closing up 3.4 percent in New York after European stocks faltered.
For the world’s poor, survival is already a struggle.
“Since this crisis started, we’ve been sitting at home and there’s no money coming in,” said Mohamed Said, a 36-year-old carpenter and father-of-three queueing for food packages in Cairo.
“We don’t know how to feed our kids… and if, God forbid, something happens to any of them, I won’t be able to foot a hospital bill.”
France on Monday reported that 833 more people had died of COVID-19 in hospitals and nursing homes over the previous 24 hours, its highest daily toll since the epidemic began.
“We have not reached the end of the ascent of this epidemic,” Health Minster Olivier Veran told reporters, as he announced the new toll which brought the total number killed in the coronavirus epidemic in France to 8,911.
The figures were a reminder to France — which has been in lockdown since March 17 in a bid to slow the spread of the virus — of the long road ahead after several days where key data had improved somewhat.
France is now giving a daily combined toll of deaths in hospitals and nursing homes. Previously it had only given the hospital toll on a daily basis.
Of the new deaths, 605 were registered in hospitals, Veran said.
“It is not over. Far from that. The path is long. The figures that I have announced show this,” he said. “Stay at home and continue this confinement effort,” he added.
Veran said that 478 more people had gone into intensive care over the last 24 hours, a higher figure than in previous days.
But in more positive news, he said that counting patients who had left intensive care, there were just a net total of 94 more patients in intensive care, the lowest such figure since the confinement began.
“We see that the confinement has a palpable impact. In France we are beginning to feel it.”
Veran said that the latest figures from statistical modelling showed that the reproduction rate (R0) — the number of people an average infected person infects — was falling in France.
If the number is under 1.0 it means the average victim infects less than one person, giving hope that the epidemic will end.
“Thanks to the confinement, this R0 is around 1.0 and probably a little under and in some regions clearly under.
“In other regions it is above 1.0 so this is why we must stay at home.”
Veran said that in nursing homes — where a total of 2,417 people have died since the start of the epidemic — a “vast operation” of testing would begin to better protect residents.
France on Friday reported 588 more coronavirus deaths in hospital, its biggest 24-hour toll in the country since the epidemic began.
The new deaths brought to 5,091 the total number of people who have died in hospital of COVID-19 in France, top health official Jerome Salomon told reporters.
There is no daily toll for those who have died of COVID-19 in old people’s homes in France. But Salomon said that a total of 1,416 people had died in such establishments from COVID-19 during the epidemic. This brings the total French toll to at least 6,507.
France has been in lockdown since March 17 in a bid to slow the spread of the epidemic, with only essential trips allowed outside that have to be justified with a signed piece of paper.
In a glimmer of hope, Salomon said that 1,186 more people had been hospitalised suffering from the coronavirus with 263 more entering intensive care, the lowest such increases for over a week.
He said that there were a total of 64,338 confirmed cases in France, an increase of 5,233 on the day earlier. But this does not include all cases as testing is not universal.
According to Salomon, there was a reduction in emergency phone calls and while it was too soon to say this was a trend it was “good news”.
“We cannot analyse the situation based on one number and one day but we have noticed this decrease,” he said.
Despite the decrease in the growth of intensive care patients “we have still not reached the peak of this wave and even less its diminution,” he added.
On what in usual times would be a weekend where French families would decamp en masse for the Easter holidays, Salomon repeated official warnings that vacationing was out of the question.
“This evening above all. Stay at home if you want to save lives,” he said.
Asked about apparent mixed messages over the course of the crisis concerning whether people should wear sanitary masks, Salomon said they could help but gave no indication whether this would be obligatory.
“In France, as in Europe, we don’t have the tradition of wearing the mask. There is a tradition in Asia.”
“These masks allow you to protect yourself. If there is access to masks we encourage the public to wear masks if they desire,” he said.
With millions locked down across France during the COVID-19 pandemic, overstretched police are struggling to ensure people stay indoors, especially with spring approaching.
Authorities are increasingly turning to drones to patrol streets, parks, and riverbanks, and manufacturers are more than happy to meet the demand.
Authorities struggle at times to convince people to curb their instincts and spend less time outside, especially when the weather is good.
The order “stay home! You cannot stay in this area,” barked from the sky elicits an image of Big Brother that civil libertarians have warned of for some time.
In February, a video that went viral on social media showed an astonished Chinese woman being lectured to by a drone.
“Yes grandmother, it is the drone that is speaking to you. You should not go out without a mask. You had better go back home, and don’t forget to wash your hands,” the policeman who was controlling the device told her.
European police have picked up on the idea and want to use “fear of the cops” to support restrictions in Belgium, France and Spain.
The technique is being used even outside urban areas, where people are inclined to feel they run less risk of crossing paths with someone carrying COVID-19.
“A message from a drone catches your attention and avoids police having to meet the person face to face,” notes Stephane Morelli, co-founder of Azur Drones which has developed a “quasi-autonomous” system of airborne surveillance.
He told AFP that China has also tested drones equipped with infrared sensors that take people’s temperatures in the street or on their balconies.
Since streets are almost empty and other aircraft are few and far between, the conditions for using drones are almost ideal, he said.
But once we become used to such surveillance, and possibly employ countermeasures like hats and masks, will it still be effective?
“I see it mainly as a way to raise awareness, and then as a means of control,” said Bastien Laurent, head of a national federation of professional civil drone operators.
Unlike China, France does not now allow drones to be used for facial recognition, though they are capable of doing so from several hundred meters (yards) away.
But since rules on moving about have been widely reported by the media, “you don’t necessarily have to identify someone” because the drone can “spread the word” or direct a police patrol to the person in question, Laurent told AFP.
“The idea is not yet to use a drone for fines. I do not think France is ready for that sort of thing,” added Alexandre Thomas, founder of Flying Eye, which sells and rents drones to security services.
“Since Friday, I am getting calls every two hours to order material,” he told AFP.
Authorities in Paris have a contract with the company and now own and use around 20 of its drones for various purposes.
“Drones are no longer exotic, they are indispensable tools already being used to keep an eye on demonstrations,” Thomas noted.
He added that “there is also strong demand from prisons, in case of riots to inform intervention teams on the ground.”
His company was asked about the possibility of adapting drones “to do aerial spraying of disinfectants” to fight the pandemic that has killed almost 22,000 people worldwide.
Images from China showing such use also recall scenarios from a science fiction movie.
In France, “we are only in the development phase, that is something foreseen for when the confinement period is over,” Thomas believes.
The French government is also under pressure from doctors’ unions to impose a total nationwide curfew, with some cities, including Nice and Perpignan, already banning people from going out.
With authorities expected to extend the lockdown beyond the end of March, doctors want it tightened to “at a minimum” stopping people going out to jog or exercise.
Parliament toughened fines for people who break the current confinement measures late Saturday. Repeat offenders now face six months in prison and a fine of 3,700 euros ($3,950).
– Shortage of masks –
Dr Razafindranazy died on Saturday in a hospital in the northern city of Lille, with his son paying an emotional tribute to him on Facebook.
“He was passionate about his work and chose not to retire. He has left a family behind him who will never forget him,” he added.
The family also warned that “this illness is extremely serious and must not be taken lightly”.
Marini said Dr Razafindranazy “would soon have been 68” and had treated some of the first cases in the Oise department, the first area in France to be badly hit by COVID-19.
He was infected in early March, the mayor added.
A quarter of the more than 7,200 people now in hospital with the virus are in intensive care.
Veran said many medical staff who contract the virus could in fact be getting infected outside of their work, while adding that protection for frontline staff was “absolutely indispensable”.
But doctors and nurses were losing patience, with the Frederic Adnet, the head of an emergency department at Seine-Saint-Denis in the northern suburbs of Paris, saying supplies of protective clothing were clearly under strain.
“We know we are exposed,” he told French television. “We know a number of us are going to contract it and there will be a price to pay… with protective gear cruelly lacking.”
Almost one billion people were confined to their homes worldwide on Saturday as the global coronavirus death toll topped 12,000 and US states rolled out stay-at-home measures already imposed across swathes of Europe.
More than a third of Americans were adjusting to life in various phases of virtual lockdown — including in the US’s three biggest cities of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — with more states expected to ramp up restrictions.
New Jersey became the latest US state to restrict movement as the fast-spreading pandemic upends lives across the planet, closing businesses, shutting schools and forcing millions to work from home.
“This is a time of shared national sacrifice, but also a time to treasure our loved ones,” US President Donald Trump told a press conference. “We’re going to have a great victory.”
The virus death toll surpassed 12,000 worldwide as worst-hit Italy reported a one-day record number of deaths at 793 — the overall total shot past 4,800 — and Spain reported a 32 percent spike in new deaths.
The nearly one billion people are now confined to their homes in 35 countries around the world — including 600 million hemmed in by obligatory government lockdown orders — according to an AFP tally.
In France, police officials said helicopters and drones were being deployed to boost the government’s attempts to keep people in their homes.
“The helicopters will give us a larger vision and a panoramic view of the situation in real-time to help guide the patrols on the ground,” a national police source said.
The measures came as pressure mounted on Olympic organizers to postpone the 2020 Tokyo Games — and as the US Congress thrashes out an emergency economic package that could top $1 trillion.
‘Months, not weeks’
With virus fears gripping the world’s number one economy, New Jersey followed several other states, including California, New York and Illinois, in telling residents to stay indoors.
Governor Phil Murphy ordered all non-essential businesses to close their physical stores from 9:00 PM (0100 GMT Sunday).
In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo warned Saturday that the disruption is likely to last for months.
“I don’t believe it’s going to be a matter of weeks,” he said.
China on Saturday reported no new local infections for a third straight day, and the WHO said the central city of Wuhan, where the virus first emerged late last year, offered a glimmer of “hope for the rest of the world.”
But there are growing concerns of a new wave of “imported” infections in the region, with Hong Kong reporting 48 suspected cases on Friday –- its biggest daily jump since the crisis began.
Italy, a nation of 60 million now accounts for 36 percent of the world’s coronavirus deaths and its death rate of 8.6 percent among confirmed infections is significantly higher than in most other countries.
France, Italy, Spain and other European countries have ordered people to stay at home, threatening fines in some cases, while Bavaria became the first region in Germany to order a lockdown.
Britain also announced tougher restrictions, telling pubs, restaurants and theaters to close.
While the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions are the hardest hit by the virus, the World Health Organization has warned that young people are also vulnerable.
Australia’s famed Bondi beach and Rio de Janeiro’s beaches were ordered shut.
A restriction on non-essential travel over the US borders with Canada and Mexico was due to come into force Saturday.
And US lawmakers expressed hope of striking an agreement on a $1 trillion emergency aid package, amid fears of widespread economic fallout because of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, US Vice President Mike Pence said he and his wife would be tested for the coronavirus after one of his office staff contracted the illness.
And America’s Food and Drug Administration also approved the first coronavirus test that can be conducted entirely at the point of care for a patient — and deliver results in 45 minutes.
In sport, the USA Track and Field became the latest influential sports body to ask for the Summer Olympics to be called off.
“The right and responsible thing to do is to prioritize everyone’s health and safety,” chief Max Siegel said in a letter to the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC).
The strict confinement measures follow the template set by China, as a lockdown imposed in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital, appeared to have paid off.
Europe now accounts for more than half of the world’s fatalities linked to COVID-19.
Accurate figures are difficult to come by, however, as many of those who die suffer from other illnesses, and infection rates are uncertain because of a lack of testing in many countries.
The shadow of the virus is lengthening across Africa and the Middle East as well.
Cases stand at more than 1,000 across Africa, where health care systems are fragile and social distancing is not possible in many crowded cities.
The Democratic Republic of Congo, Finland, Lithuania and Mauritius all reported their first virus deaths Saturday.
In Iran, which reported 123 new deaths Saturday, both supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani promised the country would overcome the outbreak — but still refused to join the rest of the world in imposing heavy restrictions.
The country has more than 1,500 deaths and some 20,000 infections.
In Latin America, Bolivia ordered citizens to stay at home from Sunday, and Colombia said it would begin mandatory isolation from Tuesday.
French homeless organisations on Friday accused police of issuing fines to rough sleepers for failing to comply with self-isolation requirements under the strict social lockdown to halt the spread of the coronavirus.
Without providing numbers, they said fines have been issued to homeless people in the French capital Paris, in Lyon in the east and Bayonne in the southwest.
“We request that clear instructions be given… so that these sanctions cease immediately,” Florent Gueguen, head of the FAS federation of homeless organisations told AFP.
French society has been in lockdown since midday Tuesday, with excursions from the home limited to buying food, visiting the doctor, walking the dog or going for a solitary jog.
Workers are only allowed to go to the office if their employer does not provide an option for working from home.
People who venture outside need to carry a certificate, which can be printed from the government website, to declare the reason for their trip, and risk a 135-euro ($145) fine if they cannot show one.
French authorities say several dozen homeless people have been infected with the COVID-19 virus. Those who cannot be accommodated in homeless shelters and do not need hospitalisation, will be taken to new, dedicated centres in the coming days.
The government is also requisitioning hotel rooms to house the homeless during this period.
France on Thursday mooted extending a two-week lockdown to try to stem the spread of the coronavirus as the interior minister blasted “idiots” who flout home confinement rules and put others at risk.
President Emmanuel Macron has ordered French residents to stay at home except for essential excursions such as going to the doctor, walking the dog, or going for a solitary run, and banned any gatherings.
For a two-week period that began Tuesday, people can go to work only if their employer cannot make tele-commuting possible.
But news reports have shown groups of friends and families strolling in parks despite the clampdown, prompting calls from some officials for even stricter limits.
Many have been observed ignoring the one-metre (three feet) safe inter-personal distance in queues at the essential businesses that were allowed to stay open.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner said people ignoring the measures were “idiots”.
“There are people who underestimate the risk… There are people who think they are modern-day heroes by breaking the rules while they are in fact idiots,” he told Europe 1 radio.
Macron on Thursday urged companies and workers to continue their activities “in compliance with the health safety rules”.
Genevieve Chene, who heads France’s public health agency, said between two and four weeks are needed for the outbreak to be adequately contained.
“Within two to three weeks we should be able to observe a slightly different dynamic” to the outbreak’s momentum, she told Franceinfo radio, and “a significant braking” within two to four weeks.
“It is likely that it is indeed necessary to extend (the containment measures) in order for the braking to be sufficient,” Chene said.
The timing will depend largely on how closely people conform with the confinement measures, she added.
People who do not, insisted Castaner, “are putting themselves at risk, their families and their loved ones, but also the health workers who will be there, even if they behaved foolishly… to treat them, to save them”.
The minister also railed against thefts of surgical masks from hospitals, and said the authorities would deal harshly with anyone found to be involved in the “despicable” illegal trade of such protective equipment.
He warned that anyone selling fake authorisation certificates, which people now need to carry every time they leave the house, face up to a year in prison and a fine of 15,000 euros.
Chene said the experience of other hard-hit countries had shown that the outbreak peaks after one to two months, and lasts about two to three months overall.
Based on the outbreak in China, where the virus first emerged in December, France’s peak would happen around the middle or end of May, she added.
She said there are probably “more cases in France than can be confirmed every day.”
Meanwhile, the French government has started requisitioning hotel rooms for homeless people to occupy during the confinement period, Housing Minister Julien Denormandie announced.
More than 170 rooms will be made available in Paris by the end of the week, and the government has identified 80 sites elsewhere across the country to accomodate the country’s estimated 250,000 homeless people.
Some 50 million euros has been set aside for the project.