Sat, 30 May 2020

Washington - Confirmed coronavirus cases around the world topped one million on Thursday and the number of deaths soared past 50 000 as Europe reeled from the pandemic and the United States reported record numbers of people out of work.

Despite more than half the planet imposing some form of lockdown, the virus claimed thousands more lives, with Spain and Britain seeing the highest number of daily fatalities yet.

And it continued to wreak havoc on the global economy, with the US announcing a record 6.65 million workers filed for unemployment benefits last week and Spain reporting its biggest monthly increase in jobless claims ever.

The pandemic caused further disruption to the US election calendar as the Democratic Party announced it was postponing its convention to choose a November opponent for President Donald Trump to 17 August.

The decision came after the likely nominee, former vice president Joe Biden, said the convention, originally scheduled for 13-16 July in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, would probably need to be delayed.

Also in the US, a virus-stricken cruise ship, the Zaandam, which has dozens of ill passengers and crew on board, was finally allowed to dock in Florida after being stranded at sea for weeks.

Since emerging in China in December, Covid-19 has infected at least 1 000 036 people - including more than half a million in Europe - and claimed 51 18 lives, according to a tally by AFP from official sources.

There have been 236 339 infections and 5 648 deaths reported in the United States, where Covid-19 is currently spreading the most rapidly.

Italy, the hardest-hit country in terms of deaths, has 115 242 reported cases, 13 915 of them fatal, while Spain reported 110 238 cases and 10 003 fatalities.

The number of actual infections is believed to be higher since many countries are only testing severe cases or patients requiring hospitalisation.

The crisis has put enormous strain on national health care systems and medical staff working in the most difficult of circumstances.

"Every morning before I start work, I make the sign of the cross, and pray that everything will go all right," Ester Piccinini, a 27-year-old nurse at the Humanitas Gavazzeni hospital in Bergamo, northern Italy, told AFP. "I hope everything will be all right for my patients."

'Slowdown in Spain'

Europe has been at the centre of the crisis for weeks, but there have been signs the epidemic could be approaching its peak.

Spain and Britain saw record numbers of new deaths in the past 24 hours - 950 and 569 respectively.

France recorded 471 hospital deaths, down from the previous day, but also announced a new figure of 884 deaths in old people's homes since the epidemic began.

Italy registered 760 new deaths, with its numbers continuing to fall.

The number of confirmed Spanish cases passed the 110 000 mark, the government said, although the rate of new infections continued a downward trend.

"The data show the curve has stabilised" and the epidemic has entered a "slowdown" phase, Health Minister Salvador Illa said.

The virus has chiefly affected the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions, but recent cases have highlighted it can kill people of all ages.

In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson vowed to "massively increase testing" as his health minister said the aim was 100 000 tests a day within weeks.

Johnson, who contracted the virus, was speaking from self-isolation following criticism of his government's failure to provide widespread screening, particularly for frontline healthcare workers.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin extended paid non-working days until the end of April as the number of confirmed cases jumped by more than a quarter on Thursday to 3 548 with 30 deaths.

Most of the Russian population is on lockdown, with Moscow in particular facing tough isolation rules.

100 000 body bags

Thailand became the latest country to impose strict lockdown measures with the introduction of a curfew from Friday, pushing the number of people in confinement to 3.9 billion, or half the world's population.

Around 85 percent of Americans are under some form of stay-at-home order, but there have been warnings of a staggering US death toll, even with mitigation efforts in force.

On Thursday, the US disaster response agency FEMA asked the American military for 100 000 body bags.

The virus and the measures taken to contain it have raised fears of the worst global economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The US Labor Department said the 6.65 million workers who filed for unemployment benefits last week was double the number the previous week, and the most ever recorded.

Economists warned US job losses could surge to a previously unimaginable 10 to 20 million in April.

Financial ratings agency Fitch on Thursday predicted that the US and eurozone economies would contract this quarter by up to 30 percent on an annualised basis, as struggling businesses slash investment and widespread unemployment dampens consumer spending.

World leaders have announced huge financial aid packages to deal with the crisis and the World Bank on Thursday approved a plan to roll out $160 billion in emergency aid over 15 months.

On the sports front, the British government said English Premier League footballers should take a pay cut, amid outrage at top-flight clubs using a furlough scheme for non-playing staff.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said everyone needed to play a part in the fight against coronavirus. "That means Premier League footballers too," he said.

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