The number of global coronavirus infections shot past 200,000 on Wednesday, as governments across Europe, North America and Asia rolled out tough measures to put the brakes on the ferocious spread of the deadly pandemic.
Worldwide fatalities topped 8,000 and more deaths have now been recorded in Europe, the new virus epicentre, than in Asia since the outbreak first emerged in China in December.
From Belgium to Britain and the United States, governments across the world have imposed draconian lockdown measures, forcing unprecedented social change and sending financial markets into a tailspin.
The European Union sealed its borders on Wednesday, barring travellers from outside the bloc for 30 days to try to slow the rapid spread of the virus.
Europe has now recorded 3,437 deaths – including 2,503 in Italy – leapfrogging Asia’s 3,384 fatalities, according to an AFP tally.
There are more than 79,000 cases across Europe, with Italy, Spain and France leading infections and fatalities.
As the spectre of a deep global recession looms large, London and Washington announced massive economic stimulus packages after coming under fire over their response to the crisis.
But financial markets were unimpressed, with US, European and Asian stocks all sinking on Wednesday.
And the International Labour Organization warned that the pandemic could leave up to 25 million more people out of work and drastically slash workers’ incomes.
US President Donald Trump said the White House was discussing a “substantial” spending bill with Congress that would include immediate cash payments to Americans.
Officials did not give hard numbers but The Washington Post reported the amount could reach $850 billion, with a chunk destined for airlines fearing ruin.
“We’re going big,” Trump told reporters.
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On Wednesday he promised more “very important” news from the Food and Drug Adminstration to be announced at a press conference later, calling the illness the “Chinese Virus” – a term that irks Beijing.
Britain also Tuesday unveiled on Tuesday a loan package for businesses struggling in the sudden economic paralysis caused by mass self-quarantine, following similar moves by France and Germany.
London also announced sweeping emergency powers including proposals allowing police to detain potentially infected people for tests.
– ‘Unprecedented’ education challenge –
The EU warned of long-term ripples from the virus as it imposed its new travel restrictions, the most significant emergency measure from Brussels, which has struggled to develop a unified response.
EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen told Germany’s Bild newspaper that politicians had initially underestimated the virus threat.
“But now it is clear that this is a virus that will keep us busy for a long time yet,” she said. “We understand that measures that seemed drastic two or three weeks ago, need to be taken now.”
Within the bloc some countries have sealed borders, while bars, restaurants and most shops have closed their doors until further notice, grinding life in Europe’s normally bustling cities to a halt because of the global coronavirus infections.
Some 850 million youngsters have been kept home globally – about half the world’s student population – according to UNESCO.
“The scale and speed of the school and university closures represent an unprecedented challenge for the education sector,” it said.
Trump said the US-Canada border would close for all non-essential travel – but assured trade would continue unfettered – building on a previous ban on most visitors from Europe and China.
In the US itself, Maryland became the latest state to delay presidential election primaries and New York City is considering curfews.
Australia’s government urged citizens to not travel abroad and banned gatherings of more than 100 people as cases topped 500.
The World Health Organization called for “aggressive” action in Southeast Asia to combat the virus after it was largely spared the alarming number of cases clocked elsewhere in the region early on.
Malaysia has already banned travellers from overseas, while Vietnam has blocked visitors from several European nations.