Virus deaths top 100,000 ahead of locked-down Easter
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by Dmitry Zaks with AFP bureaus
The global coronavirus death toll topped 100,000 Friday as Easter celebrations around the world kicked off in near-empty churches with billions of people stuck indoors to halt the pandemic’s deadly march.
The grim milestone came as the World Health Organization issued a dire warning that prematurely lifting lockdown restrictions — affecting more than half the planet’s population — could spark a dangerous resurgence of the disease.
Extraordinary measures from New York to Naples to New Delhi have seen businesses and schools closed in a desperate bid to halt the virus’s spread, and the IMF has said the world now faces the worst downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
More than 1.6 million people have been infected globally and the death toll hit 100,859 on Friday — with nearly 70 percent of fatal cases in hard-hit Europe.
The United States, now the pandemic’s epicenter, became the first country to record more than 2,000 virus deaths in one day, with 2,108 fatalities according to the Johns Hopkins University tally.
The US has seen 18,586 deaths overall and is closing in on the toll of 18,849 dead in Italy, which has the most fatalities so far in the pandemic.
America is also approaching half a million confirmed cases of COVID-19, by far the most of any country.
Officials in the US and Europe nevertheless expressed some hope the curve could be starting to flatten.
US President Donald Trump said that with his country’s infection trajectory “near the peak” and social distancing working well, he was considering ways to open up the world’s biggest economy “as soon as possible.”
“Without question it’s the biggest decision I’ve ever had to make,” Trump said.
He acknowledged the “risk” of increased death tolls if shuttered businesses re-open too soon.
“But you know what? Staying at home leads to death also,” he said, highlighting the massive economic cost to millions of Americans.
Easter celebrations that would normally see churches packed with parishioners were replaced by an eerie emptiness Friday.
Even such hallowed traditions as the pope’s Easter message are being revamped — Pope Francis will live-stream from the seclusion of his private library.
“We have to respond to our confinement with all our creativity,” the pontiff said. “We can either get depressed and alienated… or we can get creative.”
Worshippers in Germany embraced social distancing orders to celebrate Good Friday at a drive-in service in Dusseldorf.
“It was a sad feeling at first,” Catholic priest Frank Heidkamp told AFP, as hundreds gathered in a parking lot.
“With this car service we’re trying to create a little bit of community.”
More than four billion people are confined to their homes as governments worldwide have imposed never-before-seen measures to halt the virus.
This week, China started to ease months-old lockdown orders in Wuhan, where the outbreak started in December.
Like Trump, governments in Europe are facing pressure to strike a balance between keeping their populations safe and battering economies already bruised by widespread shutdowns.
The WHO issued a stern warning Friday.
“I know that some countries are already planning the transition out of stay-at-home restrictions,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
“Lifting restrictions too quickly could lead to a deadly resurgence. The way down can be as dangerous as the way up if not managed properly.”
Some countries, especially in Asia, worry about a possible second wave of infections imported from travellers as life creeps back to normal.
Trump said he would name a new “opening our country task force” on Tuesday as he seeks a rapid return to economic stability.
But the government’s top infectious disease specialist, Anthony Fauci, said that despite signs of progress, “this is not the time… to be pulling back at all” on social distancing efforts.
Boris Johnson walking
In some countries, glimmers of hope may be emerging.
Spain, the third hardest-hit country, saw its lowest 24-hour toll in 17 days, after Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said the “fire started by the pandemic is starting to come under control”.
France reported nearly 1,000 new deaths Friday, but the number of patients in intensive care fell for the second straight day.
Italy’s toll neared 19,000 Friday, the highest in the world, but daily rises in new infections have slowed dramatically.
Still, the government said it would extend lockdown orders until May 3.
Britain’s toll climbed too, with 980 new deaths, and the government resisted calls to ease lockdown measures.
But spirits were lifted there Friday when virus-stricken Prime Minister Boris Johnson showed signs of recovery after a three-day stay in intensive care following his COVID-19 diagnosis in late March.
“The Prime Minister has been able to do short walks, between periods of rest,” a Downing Street spokesman said.