Italy recorded a shocking spike in coronavirus deaths Friday with 969 new victims, the worst daily record for any country since the pandemic began.
The infection rate, however, continued its downward trend, with the civil protection agency reporting nearly 86,500 confirmed cases in Italy — a 7.4 percent increase, down from around 8.0 percent in previous days.
An overwhelmed Italian city at the heart of the coronavirus pandemic on Thursday sent more of its dead to nearby towns for cremation as the country’s world-leading toll topped 8,000.
Officials in Rome reported 662 new deaths and 6,153 infections — largely in line with the figures reported throughout the week.
The rise in daily deaths edged down to the lowest point in the crisis — 8.8 percent — while the infection rate stood at around eight percent for the fourth day running.
But the numbers are not dropping much further and Italians appear to be coming to terms with the realisation that two weeks of life under lockdown have not made the disease go away.
“Until we see this damn rate drop, we will have to continue making very hard sacrifices,” deputy civil protection service chief Agostino Miozzo said in reference to the ever-tightening containment measures.
Italy’s coronavirus death toll now stands at 8,165 — more than that of second-placed Spain and China, where the virus emerged in December, combined.
‘Crematoriums could not cope’
The endless flood of victims forced the city of Bergamo at Italy’s northern epicentre of the pandemic to send still more bodies to less burdened crematoriums in neighbouring towns.
An AFP photographer saw six camouflage green army trucks transporting coffins out of a Bergamo cemetery on Thursday.
“The large number of victims has meant that Bergamo’s crematorium could not cope on its own,” mayor Giorgio Gori said in a statement released to AFP.
The mayor said the city had also received 113 urns with the ashes of bodies that had been sent out for cremation earlier this week.
The bodies in the city of about 120,000 people are literally piling up.
A warehouse in the commune of Ponte San Pietro on Bergamo’s western outskirts held 35 freshly-made wooden coffins Thursday that were destined for cremation at a later date.
Still more coffins filled a barren church hall in the Seriate commune to Bergamo’s east.
A priest said a quiet prayer over the rows of coffins and a single red rose rested atop one in the otherwise empty room.
Yet the Italian government is just as anxious about the northern crisis spilling over into the far less developed south.
The head of the Campania region that includes Naples warned of a “dramatic explosion” of infections based on this week’s trends.
“The next 10 days will be hell for us,” governor Vincenzo De Luca said in an open letter to Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
The number of officially registered deaths in Campania — Italy’s third-most-populous with nearly six million people — rose from 29 on Sunday to 83 on Thursday.
But no southern region has recorded more than 100 coronavirus fatalities to date.
Italy’s latest figures confirm that COVID-19 overwhelmingly kills the elderly and the sick.
Data from Italy’s first 5,542 fatalities show that 98.6 percent of the victims already suffered from at least one ailment or pre-existing condition.
Slightly over half had three or more other health problems when they died.
Only 29.1 percent of the victims were women. The disparity has been observed elsewhere and still puzzles doctors around the world.
The average age of victims was 78 — a fraction lower than the 78.8 reported last week based on the first 3,200 deaths.
But Italian virologist Roberto Burioni said the figures were “not particularly reliable” because the country was primarily testing people who already exhibited flu-like symptoms.
Italy’s death rate among the confirmed COVID-19 cases — 10.1 percent — was thus much higher than in countries with broad-based testing such as South Korea.
Spain’s coronavirus death toll overtook that of China on Wednesday, rising to 3,434 after another 738 people died as Madrid announced a multi-million-euro deal with Beijing for critical supplies.
The spike in fatalities means that across the globe, only Italy — with 7,503 deaths — now has a higher death toll than Spain.
In China, where the virus emerged late last year, the COVID-19 epidemic has claimed 3,281 lives.
The latest figures were announced as Spain entered the 11th day of an unprecedented lockdown to try and rein in the deadly coronavirus outbreak that has now infected 47,610 people, the health ministry said.
Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo, who has been in hospital since Monday, has tested positive for the virus and is improving, the government said.
Two other ministers in Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s government are infected.
The surge in numbers has brought the medical system to the brink of collapse, with Spain struggling with a lack of medical supplies for testing, treatment and the protection of frontline workers, and a growing number of cases among healthcare personnel with more than 5,400 infected.
To address the shortages, Health Minister Salvador Illa said the government had inked a major deal with China.
Worth some 432 million euros ($467 million), the deal will cover 550 million masks, 5.5 million rapid test kits, 950 respirators and 11 million pairs of gloves, he told a televised news conference.
“We have secured entire production chains (in China) which will be working solely for the Spanish government,” he said.
The supplies will be delivered “on a staggered basis, every week, with the first — a major delivery — arriving at the end of this week,” he said.
He also said Spain would continue producing its own materials on a national level.
– NATO help sought –
The announcement came a day after Spain’s armed forces asked NATO for humanitarian assistance to secure supplies to help curb the spread of the virus both in the military and in the civilian population.
The request specified 450,000 respirators, 500,000 rapid testing kits, 500 ventilators and 1.5 million surgical masks.
Despite the national lockdown imposed on March 14, which is to be extended until April 11, both deaths and infections have continued to mount, with officials warning this week would be particularly bad.
“We are approaching the peak,” the ministry’s emergencies coordinator Fernando Simon said in announcing the figures.
Health authorities are hoping it will soon become clear whether the lockdown is having the desired effect.
The Madrid region has suffered the brunt of the epidemic with 14,597 infections — just under a third of the total — and 1,825 deaths, or 53 percent of the national figure.
Madrid mayor Jose Luis Martinez Almeida warned the coming days would be “complicated” “psychologically” for the entire city.
– Airbus resumes production-
With hospitals on the brink of collapse, troops have set up a massive field hospital in Madrid’s vast IFEMA exhibition centre which currently has 1,500 beds but which could be expanded to take in up to 5,500 people — making it the largest hospital in Spain.
And with the city’s funeral services overwhelmed, officials have commandeered the Palacio de Hielo ice skating rink to serve as a temporary morgue.
In a separate development, unions have been up in arms over a decision by Airbus to resume production in Spain, despite the outbreak, saying it endangered workers’ lives.
So far, a total of 138 employees have tested positive for the virus with hundreds more in quarantine, but the European plane-maker resumed production on Monday, prompting unions to call an indefinite strike.
Nearly one billion people around the world were confined to their homes on Sunday, as the coronavirus death toll crossed 13,000 and factories were shut in worst-hit Italy after another single-day fatalities record.
The raging pandemic has forced lockdowns in 35 countries, disrupting lives, travel and businesses as governments scramble to shut borders and unleash hundreds of billions in emergency measures to avoid a widespread virus-fuelled economic meltdown.
More than 300,000 infections have been confirmed worldwide, with the situation increasingly grim in Italy where the death toll spiked to more than 4,800 — over a third of the global total.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced a closure of all non-essential factories in a late-night TV address on Saturday.
The Mediterranean nation of 60 million is now the epicentre of the disease, which first emerged in central China late last year before marching out to the rest of the world.
Italy has now reported more deaths than mainland China and third-placed Iran combined, and it has a death rate of 8.6 percent among confirmed COVID-19 infections — significantly higher than in most other countries.
Across the Atlantic, more than a third of Americans were adjusting to life in various phases of lockdown, including in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Other parts of the United States are expected to ramp up restrictions as well.
“This is a time of shared national sacrifice, but also a time to treasure our loved ones,” US President Donald Trump said. “We’re going to have a great victory.”
As world leaders have vowed to fight the pandemic, the number of deaths and infections has continued to rise, especially in Europe — now the main coronavirus hotspot.
Spain reported a 32 percent spike in new deaths on Saturday, with Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez warning that the nation needs to prepare for “very hard days ahead”.
Fatalities in France jumped to 562 as police officials said helicopters and drones were being deployed to boost the government’s attempts to keep people in their homes.
The unprecedented measures to counter the spread of COVID-19 have shredded the international sports calendar, and pressure is mounting on Olympic organisers to postpone the 2020 Tokyo Games.
‘Months, not weeks’
The pandemic has bludgeoned global stock markets, and the United States — the world’s biggest economy — is preparing a huge emergency stimulus package that could top $1 trillion.
Millions have been ordered to stay home in the United States.
New Jersey on Saturday followed several states in telling residents to stay indoors.
And in neighbouring New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo warned that the disruption is likely to last for months, not weeks.
“I don’t think it’s possible in a city of this size for people to maintain it for much longer than three weeks before they start losing it,” Yona Corn, a 35-year-old singer, told AFP.
“I think there’s going to be a big mental health crisis. I worry about what’s going to happen to people.”
The US 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.
Vice President Mike Pence and his wife tested negative for the coronavirus, his press secretary tweeted Saturday. The couple had taken the test after one of Pence’s staffers contracted the illness.
The drastic confinement measures follow the example of China, where the lockdown of Hubei province appears to have paid off. Wuhan, Hubei’s capital, is where the virus was first detected.
France, Italy, Spain and other European countries have ordered people to stay at home, threatening fines in some cases, while Australia on Sunday told citizens to cancel domestic travel plans.
Britain has told pubs, restaurants and theatres to close and warned citizens to stop panic-buying.
China reported its first local infection in four days on Sunday. While the number of cases in the mainland has slumped dramatically since the crisis began, there are fears in Asia of “imported” cases from other hotspots like Europe.
Thailand on Sunday reported its highest daily rise in cases, taking its total to nearly 600, while India went into lockdown with a one-day nationwide “self-imposed curfew”.
While the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions are the hardest hit by the virus, the WHO has warned that young people are also vulnerable.
Accurate COVID-19 figures are difficult to reach because many of the victims suffered from other illnesses, and infection rates are uncertain because of a lack of testing in many countries.
The coronavirus has infected more than 1,000 across Africa too, where healthcare systems are limited and social distancing measures are difficult in crowded cities.
The Middle East also remains on high alert, where Iran — which suffered a major outbreak — reported 123 deaths on Saturday. But the Islamic Republic has refused to join the rest of the world in imposing heavy restrictions.
El Salvador joined several central and South American countries in imposing quarantine measures on Saturday, as Colombia announced its first coronavirus death.
Argentina striker Paulo Dybala said Saturday that he has become the third Juventus player to test positive for coronavirus while former AC Milan defender Paolo Maldini revealed that he and his son have also been infected.
“Hi everyone. I just wanted to let you know that we have received the Covid-19 test results and that Oriana (Sabatini, his girlfriend) and I are positive,” the 26-year-old Dybala tweeted.
“Fortunately, we are perfectly fine. Thank you for your messages.”
Italian champions Juventus said that Dybala had been self-isolating since Wednesday.
“He will continue to be monitored. He is well and is asymptomatic,” said the club in a statement.
Later Saturday, the club said Maldini, now the technical director at Milan, and his 18-year-old son Daniel, a youth team player, were also battling the disease.
“Paolo and Daniel are both well and have already completed two weeks at home without contact with others,” said a statement from AC Milan.
“They will now remain in quarantine until clinically recovered, as per the medical protocols outlined by the health authorities.”
Maldini, 51, is considered one of the greatest defenders of all time.
He won five Champions Leagues with Milan and appeared in 647 matches.
Juventus teammates Daniele Rugani and Blaise Matuidi have also tested positive for the disease which has claimed almost 800 lives in Italy.
Italy on Saturday reported 793 new coronavirus deaths, a one-day record that saw its toll shoot up to 4,825 — 38.3 percent of the world’s total.
The number of COVID-19 infections rose by 6,557 to 53,578, another record.
The total number of fatalities in the northern Lombardy regions around Milan surpassed 3,000. It accounts for nearly two-thirds of Italy’s fatalities.
Italy has reported 1,420 deaths since Friday, a grim figure that suggests the pandemic is breaking through the government’s various containment and social distancing measures.
The Mediterranean nation of 60 million has been under an effective lockdown since March 12, when public gatherings were banned and most stores shuttered.
Police were out in force across the streets of Rome on Saturday, checking documents and fining those outside without a valid reason, such as buying groceries.
Joggers were asked to run around the block of their houses, parks and beaches were closed, and the government in Rome prepared to extend school and other closures into the summer months.
But the outbreak keeps gathering pace in the new global epicentre of the virus. First reported in December in China, it has since transformed the world, straining healthcare systems, upending the lives for millions and pummelling global stock markets.
The figures released Saturday showed deaths still largely contained to Italy’s richer north, whose world-class healthcare system is under strain but still not breaking.
It is much better than what is available in the poorer south, whose regions have registered a few dozen deaths each — and which the government in Rome is watching closely.
The Lazio region that includes Rome has recorded a total of 50 deaths and 1,190 infections.
The National Health Institute (ISS) said the average age of coronavirus victims was 78.5, and the average age of those infected 63.
The ISS said 98.8 percent of those who died from COVID-19 had least one pre-existing condition or ailment, based on the study of Italy”s first 3,200 fatalities.
Italy’s figures are being watched closely by other governments as they try to formulate an urgent response to the rapidly-unfolding crisis.
“The elderly must stay at home, they are the most vulnerable,” ISS head Silvio Brusaferro told reporters.
“If you do not follow all the (government) measures, you make everything more difficult,” Italy’s top medical expert said.
Hundreds of millions of people worldwide kicked off the weekend under a coronavirus lockdown, as the global death toll accelerated sharply and the World Health Organization warned the young they were “not invincible”.
The pandemic has completely upended lives across the planet, sharply restricting the movement of huge populations, shutting down schools and businesses, and forcing millions to work from home — while many have lost their livelihoods entirely.
While President Donald Trump insisted the United States was “winning” the war against the virus, individual states dramatically ramped up restrictions, with New York and Illinois joining California in ordering residents to stay home.
The virus death toll surged past 11,000 worldwide, with 4,000 alone in worst-hit Italy where the daily number of fatalities has shot up relentlessly over the past week.
While the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions are the hardest hit by the virus, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that young people were also vulnerable.
“Today I have a message for young people: you are not invincible. This virus could put you in hospital for weeks — or even kill you,” Tedros said.
“Even if you don’t get sick, the choices you make about where you go could be the difference between life and death for someone else.”
China on Saturday reported no new local infections for a third straight day, and the WHO said the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus 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. Many of them have a recent history of travel to or from Europe.
Across Europe, governments continued to rigorously enforce lockdown measures as the continent’s most celebrated boulevards and squares remained silent and empty even as warmer spring weather arrived.
Italy reported its worst single day, adding another 627 fatalities and taking its reported total to 4,032 despite efforts to stem the spread.
The 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 told people to stay at home, threatening fines in some cases, while Bavaria became the first region in Germany to order a lockdown.
Britain, falling in line with its neighbours in the European Union, also announced tougher restrictions, telling pubs, restaurants, and theatres to close and promising to help cover the wages of affected workers.
– US ‘hotbeds’ – With virus fears gripping the United States, its largest state California — with over 1,000 cases and 19 deaths — told its 40 million residents to stay at home.
New York state, which has reported over 7,000 cases and 39 deaths, followed suit on Friday, ordering its nearly 20 million residents to do the same from Sunday evening.
Trump applauded the New York and California decisions but said he did not think a nationwide lockdown was needed.
“Those are really two hotbeds,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll ever find (a US-wide lockdown) necessary.”
Shortly after the president spoke, the governor of Illinois ordered residents of the midwestern state to stay at home and the Connecticut governor did the same.
The restrictions so far imposed in seven states cover around 100 million people, with the country’s three most populous cities — New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago — under lockdown.
Trump also announced Friday that the US and Mexico have agreed to restrict non-essential travel across their borders beginning on Saturday.
Meanwhile, a staffer in the office of US Vice President Mike Pence, the pointman for Washington’s response to the outbreak, tested positive for the coronavirus.
The family of country music legend Kenny Rogers, who died aged 81, said Friday they would hold a small private service “out of concern” for the virus emergency.
– ‘Idiots’ – France said more than 4,000 people were fined on the first day of confinement and ministers described those breaking the rules as “idiots”.
The strict 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 too.
Gabon confirmed sub-Saharan Africa’s second known death, with reported cases across Africa standing at more than 900 and rising fast.
In Iran, 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.
In Latin America, Cuba and Bolivia both announced they were closing their borders, and Colombia said it would begin mandatory isolation from Tuesday.
The pandemic has sparked fears of a global recession, battering the world’s stock markets and prompting governments to push huge spending plans to limit the damage.
Rio de Janeiro’s beaches will be off-limits to sunseekers from Saturday, leaving street vendors worried about how they will survive with limited government support.
“As long as I can, I will continue to come here and try to sell cocktails. I still have not thought about what I will do when it is no longer possible,” said Jorge Martins on Ipanema beach.