Britain’s Johnson tests positive for virus as Spain sees record deaths

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson became the first major world leader to test positive for the coronavirus on Friday as Spain saw a record number of deaths from the pandemic that is threatening millions around the world.

In a grim milestone, the United States overtook China as the country with the most coronavirus cases, while seeing an unprecedented amount of newly unemployed amid fears of a global economic meltdown.

And Africa’s economic powerhouse South Africa on Friday became the latest nation on the continent to start life under lockdown as it reported its first COVID-19 deaths.

Johnson, whose country has seen more than 11,600 declared coronavirus cases and 578 deaths, said he had developed mild symptoms over the previous 24 hours and was self-isolating after testing positive.

Spain reported that its death toll had hit 4,858 after 769 people died in 24 hours, a record one-day figure for fatalities and far higher than in Italy, which counted 662 deaths in its last daily update on Thursday night.

Europe has suffered the brunt of the coronavirus crisis in recent weeks, with millions across the continent on lockdown and the streets of Paris, Rome and Madrid eerily empty.

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe warned that France — reeling from the deaths of more than 1,600 people including a 16-year-old girl — was facing difficult days ahead.

“We find ourselves in a crisis that will last, in a health situation that will not improve any time soon,” Philippe said.

But focus is turning from Europe to the United States, where the number of known infections reached almost 86,000 on Friday, higher than both China and hard-hit Italy.

‘By themselves on a ventilator’

In New York City, health workers are battling a surging toll of dead and infected at the US epicentre of the crisis, including an increasing number of younger patients.

“Now it’s 50-year-olds, 40-year-olds, 30-year-olds,” said one respiratory therapist at the Jewish Medical Center in Queens.

They “didn’t listen about not going out or protecting themselves and washing their hands”, he said.

“To watch somebody in their 30s die, it’s hard. You can’t have visitors. They’re in the room by themselves on a ventilator. It’s very depressing.”

US President Donald Trump, who has been accused of downplaying the enormous scale of the crisis, spoke by telephone with China’s Xi Jinping who said the two countries needed to “unite to fight” the pandemic.

“China has been through much & has developed a strong understanding of the Virus. We are working closely together. Much respect!” Trump tweeted after the call.

The warm words were in contrast to weeks of finger pointing between the two countries, especially the White House’s repeated references to “the Chinese virus”.

The coronavirus first emerged in China late last year before spreading globally, with 539,360 declared cases registered in 183 countries and territories.

Beijing managed to contain its spread with lockdowns and quarantines and its epicentre Wuhan is in the process of easing severe movement restrictions in place for two months.

China was also readying to bar entry to foreigners out of concern over a surge of imported cases, highlighting the difficulty of containing a virus in a globalised world.

Three billion people around the world have been told to stay indoors, as health care systems even in the most developed nations are stretched to breaking point.

Medical workers have been having to make difficult choices.

“If I’ve got five patients and only one bed, I have to choose who gets it,” Sara Chinchilla, a paediatrician at a hospital near Madrid, told AFP.

“People are dying who could be saved but there’s no space in intensive care.”

Bracing for downturn

Even with lockdowns implemented around the world, researchers at Imperial College London said Thursday the global death toll could be staggering.

Their model shows 1.86 million people could die, with nearly 470 million infected this year.

Failure to act swiftly in imposing lockdowns and strict social distancing could make those numbers far higher, they warned.

The lockdowns and other measures are wreaking havoc on the global economy, with fears of a downturn worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Leaders from the Group of 20 major economies held crisis talks by video link on Thursday, announcing a $5 trillion financial rescue package “to counteract the social, economic and financial impacts of the pandemic”.

Announcements of unprecedented stimulus measures have helped markets bounce back after a brutal month, but people around the world are bracing for economic hardship.

The United States reported that 3.3 million people applied for unemployment benefits last week — by far the highest number ever recorded.

Retail workers in particular have suffered as many countries shutter non-essential business, while airlines and the global tourism industry have been dealt devastating blows.

The World Tourism Organization said Friday it expected tourist arrivals to fall by 20-30 percent this year, with losses of $300 billion-450 billion in international tourism receipts.

Armies of volunteers

For countries already battered by war, the virus has come as another shock.

On the deserted streets of the Old City in Damascus, 59-year-old textiles vendor Ahmad was finally closing up shop after staying open through nearly 10 years of conflict.

“We’ve lived through some tough times during the war,” he said. But “never in my life have I seen the markets and shops close for days on end like now.”

But there have been rays of hope in the midst of the crisis.

Armed groups in Cameroon, the Philippines and Yemen have moved in recent days to reduce violence after UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres issued an appeal for ceasefires.

And armies of volunteers have emerged in many countries to bring help to the needy, with food deliveries for the elderly, free taxi rides, accommodation for health workers, and even home-sewn face masks.

“We delivered urgent diabetes medicines today to Claudia, who is 70 and lives with her 90-year-old mother. We passed them through the window,” said Lorenzo Mastrocesare, a volunteer in Rome.

Reporting by AFP

Image: France has suffered more than 1,600 deaths from COVID-19 (AFP/DENIS CHARLET)

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