NEW YORK (AFP) – More than one billion Indians went into lockdown Wednesday, leaving a third of the planet now under orders to stay at home, as the United States vowed to spend $2 trillion to counter the economic harm of the coronavirus.
Europe remains at the heart of the epidemic, with first Italy and now Spain’s death toll overtaking that of China, while Britain’s Prince Charles became the latest prominent figure to test positive for the COVID-19 disease.
Coronavirus cases are also spreading in the Middle East, where Iran’s death toll topped 2,000 on Wednesday, and in Africa, where Mali joined all seven of its neighbours in declaring its first cases — two nationals who arrived home recently from France.
Government policies and the capacity for virus testing vary widely around the world, so the true extent of the pandemic is difficult to estimate, but more than 404,000 cases have been declared in 175 countries and territories since the epidemic first emerged in China in December.
What is in less doubt is the number of deaths, with more than 19,000 attributed to the new coronavirus strain since the outbreak began.
– ‘Wartime level of investment’ –
The economic damage of the virus — and associated lockdowns — could also be devastating, with fears of a worldwide recession worse than the financial meltdown that occurred over a decade ago.
But financial markets soared as the US Senate and the White House agreed a stimulus package worth roughly 10 percent of the entire American economy, an injection Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said represented a “wartime level of investment”.
President Donald Trump has voiced hope that the United States will be “raring to go” by mid-April, but his optimism appeared to stand almost alone among world leaders, who were ratcheting up the movement restrictions in a bid to stifle the spread of the disease.
India ordered its 1.3 billion people — the world’s second-biggest population — to stay at home for three weeks.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “total lockdown” call doubled the number of people around the globe under some form of movement restriction to more than 2.6 billion people.
“To save India, to save its every citizen, you, your family… every street, every neighbourhood is being put under lockdown,” Modi said in a televised address.
Whether the order will be obeyed in full remained to be seen. Mumbai vegetable trader Rafiq Ansari said his customers were getting angry over shortages and price hikes.
“I don’t understand what’s going on,” the 35-year-old told AFP. “We are going to face major shortages in the days ahead.”
In China, where the new virus emerged last year, authorities loosened tough rules on the 50 million people in Hubei province on Wednesday after a months-long lockdown as the country reported no new domestic cases.
The provincial capital Wuhan — the ground zero of the outbreak after it was initially detected at a market that sold wild animals for human consumption — will allow residents to leave from April 8.
– Olympics on hold –
The pandemic has cut a swathe through the world’s sporting and cultural events, and on Tuesday claimed the biggest of them all: the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, postponed until 2021.
“These postponed Olympic Games will need sacrifices, will need compromises by all of the stakeholders,” IOC chief Thomas Bach told reporters, promising “to make the Olympic dreams of athletes come true”.
The medical situation is still critical in Europe, where Spain joined hardest-hit Italy in surpassing even China’s toll after 738 people died over the past 24 hours, bringing deaths in the country to 3,434.
The surging number of deaths came as Spain entered the 11th day of an unprecedented lockdown to try to rein in the COVID-19 epidemic that has now infected 47,610 people, the health ministry said.
Iran’s president warned that mandatory movement restrictions could be introduced as soon as Wednesday evening in the country, which has seen one of the world’s highest death tolls from the pandemic so far, with 143 new deaths recorded overnight for a total of 2,077.
Meanwhile, nearly 130 million Americans, or 40 percent of the population, are under or will soon come under some lockdown order, including in the largest state of California.
Many governments are listening to health experts who warn the only way to slow the epidemic — and save the lives of the elderly and vulnerable — is by imposing “social isolation” measures.
But Trump is not convinced the move is worth the enormous economic cost of a closure extending beyond April 12.
“Our country — it’s not built to shut down,” he told Fox News. “You can destroy a country this way by closing it down.”
Global markets finally started to recoup some of the losses they have logged over a tumultuous few weeks.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average surged 11.3 percent on Tuesday, its biggest rally since 1933 during the Great Depression, and was followed by huge jumps on Wednesday on Asian markets and a more mixed response in Europe.