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March 16, 2020

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Nations tighten travel curbs to control virus

NEW travel restrictions and border closures reverberated across Europe and beyond yesterday as daily life increasingly ground to a halt amid efforts to keep people apart and slow the spread of the new coronavirus.

With new infections dwindling in Asia, Europe has become the main front line of the fight against COVID-19. The virus has infected 156,000 people and killed over 5,800, but nearly 74,000 people have already recovered from it.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced plans to limit people’s movements nationwide, shortly after Tyrol province followed Italy and Spain in barring residents from leaving their homes except for essential errands or work.

People should go out “only alone or with the people who live in their apartment,” said Kurz, whose country has 800 infections.

Across the ocean, those comments were echoed by one of the United States’ top infectious disease experts. “I think Americans should be prepared that they are going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing,” Dr Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health told NBC’s Meet the Press.

Travelers scrambling to return to the US after the Trump administration imposed a wide-ranging ban on people entering from Europe faced hours-long waits for required medical screenings. Videos and photos on social media showed packed halls and winding lines.

The US has seen 60 deaths and more than 2,100 infections. In hard-hit Washington state, officials said the disease is straining the supply of protective gear available to medical providers despite shipments from the federal government.

President Donald Trump himself has tested negative for the new virus, his physician said.

Australia will impose 14-day self-isolation on international travelers arriving from midnight yesterday and ban cruise ships from foreign ports for 30 days, mirroring restrictions in nearby New Zealand, where passengers on the Golden Princess cruise liner were barred from disembarking yesterday because of a suspected coronavirus case on board.

There were 2,600 passengers and 1,100 crew on the boat docked at Akaroa near the South Island city of Christchurch, according to the port’s cruise ship schedule.

Italy, the worst-hit European country with more than 21,000 infections and 1,400 deaths, ratcheted its nearly week-old lockdown even tighter. The transport ministry banned passengers from taking ferries to the island of Sardinia and banned overnight train trips — which many in the north had been taking to reach homes and families in the south. Overwhelmed hospitals struggled to cope with the sick.

“It’s not a wave. It’s a tsunami,” said Dr Roberto Rona, in charge of intensive care at the Monza hospital.

Spain joined Italy on lockdown after the government declared a two-week state of emergency. “From now we enter into a new phase,” Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, whose wife has tested positive for the virus. “We won’t hesitate in doing what we need to beat the virus. We are putting health first.”

In Barcelona, people who ventured out on quiet streets to buy bread at a bakery formed long lines with a meter between each person to reduce the risk of contagion.

The number of people infected in Spain increased by a third to 7,753 and more than 100 new deaths were recorded over the last 24 hours, health officials said yesterday.

Even with social life largely halted — the German capital of Berlin closed bars, cinemas and other facilities on Saturday evening — some attempts at keeping up public life persisted.

France, which has 4,500 infections and 91 deaths, went ahead yesterday with nationwide elections to choose mayors and other local leaders despite a crackdown on gatherings. The French government ordered unprecedented sanitary measures at polling stations. Organizers had to keep a 1-meter gap between people in lines and provide soap or hydro-alcoholic gel and disinfectant wipes for voting machines. Voters were told to bring their own pens.

The state of Bavaria in neighboring Germany, which had reported nearly 3,800 cases and eight deaths nationwide, also went ahead with municipal elections. Officials said more people filed postal ballots than five years earlier.

The United Kingdom, meanwhile, plans to escalate virus-fighting measures, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said, indicating the country is edging closer to tactics adopted by its neighbors that it has resisted.

Hancock said the British government plans to set out emergency powers this week to deal with the viral outbreak, including requiring people over 70 to self-isolate for up to four months, quarantining people who are sick but refuse to isolate themselves and banning big public gatherings.

Britain has been taking a different approach from countries across Europe and around the world by declining to heavily restrict everyday activities or introduce “social distancing” measures. The UK strategy is based on the presumption most people will eventually get the virus, and severe measures to contain it are unlikely to work.

But as infections rise in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, so has criticism of the Boris Johnson government’s approach. British deaths jumped by 14 from the day before to 35, and infections rose from about 800 to over 1,370, health authorities said yesterday.

Malaysia saw 190 new cases yesterday, with most linked to a religious event at a mosque that was attended by 16,000 people from several countries.

The new cases bring the total number of infections in the country to 428, the health ministry said, making it the worst affected in Southeast Asia.

In the Middle East, Muslim authorities announced that Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site, would be closed indefinitely, with prayers continuing to be held on the huge esplanade outside.


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