Italy passed a grim milestone on Thursday when it overtook China as the country with most reported deaths from the new coronavirus sweeping the planet.
The world has stepped up its war to try to contain the rapid spread of COVID-19, with several countries imposing lockdowns that are keeping tens of millions of people trapped in their homes.
But the death toll has soared in Europe even as China saw a glimmer of hope with zero new domestic cases reported for the first time.
Italy announced another 427 fatalities on Thursday, taking its total to 3,405, according to an AFP tally.
China, where the outbreak first emerged in December last year, has officially reported 3,245 deaths.
Globally, the death toll from the virus — whose main symptoms are a dry cough and fever — has risen to over 9,000.
Countries have tightened border controls and unleashed nearly a trillion dollars to prop up the teetering world economy, only to see the once-in-a-century pandemic seemingly spiral further out of control.
China listed no new domestic infections for the first time since the outbreak first erupted in the central city of Wuhan in December, before spreading worldwide.
It appeared to have staunched the virus with strict measures including a complete quarantine of Wuhan since January, meaning the number of infections and deaths in the rest of the world have surpassed those in China.
But there were fears that Asia faces a second wave of cases imported from abroad, with 34 new cases reported in China, the highest figure for two weeks.
– ‘Paying a big price’ –
US President Donald Trump, who has come under fire for his response to the crisis, charged Thursday that the world was paying for China’s lack of transparency on the outbreak of the new coronavirus there several months ago.
“It could have been contained to that one area of China where it started. And certainly the world is paying a big price for what they did,” he said.
As the toll surged in his country, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said the national lockdown, which has been copied around Europe, would be prolonged to April 3, shattering hopes of a quick end to the crisis.
“We will not be able to return immediately to life as it was before,” he said.
France also mooted extending the two-week lockdown ordered this week by President Emmanuel Macron, as the interior minister blasted “idiots” who flout home confinement rules and put others at risk.
The disease continued to hit high-profile figures with EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and Monaco’s Prince Albert II among those testing positive.
– Bank bazooka –
With countries paralysed by the pandemic and stock markets imploding, policymakers this week unleashed a wave of measures to shore up the global economy.
The European Central Bank late Wednesday announced a 750-billion-euro bond-buying scheme, dubbed the “big bazooka”.
“Extraordinary times require extraordinary action. There are no limits to our commitment to the euro,” ECB chief Christine Lagarde said.
In the United States, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is urging Congress to pass a $1-trillion emergency stimulus package immediately, with many economists saying the US is already now in deep recession.
Trump has said he views himself as a “wartime president”, even as his administration faced growing criticism over a lack of testing for coronavirus and for the speed of its response.
The US has so far shied away from the sweeping restrictions used in China and many European countries, although the streets of many of its major cities have emptied as local curbs come into effect.
European and US stocks staged a rebound on the stimulus news, although Asian markets took another beating.
But the sense of impending doom continues to cast a pall over the world economy with airlines, carmakers and others all warning of bleak times ahead.
– ‘Enemy against humanity’ –
The battle is only just beginning across the rest of the world, with the shadow of the virus lengthening across Africa.
The Nigerian mega-city of Lagos announced it would shut its schools while Burkina Faso confirmed the first death in sub-Saharan Africa.
Russia reported its first death and even the Pacific nation of Fiji said it had its first case.
The UN warned that as nations bring in shutdowns and travel bans, some three billion people lack even the most basic weapons to protect themselves from the virus: soap and running water.
World Health Organization head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus urged countries to “come together as one against a common enemy: an enemy against humanity”.
Countries are taking increasingly drastic steps to stem infections, with Australia and New Zealand banning non-residents from arriving, and India imposing a one-day nationwide curfew.
Britain closed dozens of London Underground stations and shut down schools, although the government denied reports it was about to lock down the capital.
– ‘Like a psychosis’ –
While the EU has closed its borders to outsiders, in many countries bars, restaurants and most shops have closed their doors until further notice, bringing life in Europe’s normally bustling cities to a halt.
The virus also continues to hit sports and cultural events, with Greece handing over the Olympic flame to Tokyo 2020 organisers at a ceremony held behind closed doors amid calls for the games to be postponed.
English football also extended its shutdown until at least April 30.
Interpol warned that criminals around the world were cashing in on the pandemic by offering fake or sub-standard medical products like surgical masks.
Countries are also working to combat hoarding.
As others stockpiled toilet paper and pasta, the French are thronging bakeries for their famed baguettes.
“We’ve seen people come in who want to buy 50 baguettes at a time,” said Matthieu Labbe of France’s Federation of Bakeries. “There’s something like a psychosis in some people,”