Italy bans internal travel as a further 651 die from coronavirus

ROME (Reuters) – Italy banned travel within the country on Sunday in yet another attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus, as data showed a further 651 people had died from the disease, lifting the number of fatalities to 5,476.

A month after the first death from the highly infectious virus was registered in Italy, the government also issued an order freezing all business activity deemed non-essential in an effort to keep ever more people at home and off the streets.

Amongst the sectors targeted were the car, clothing and furniture industries. They have until Wednesday to wind down operations and will have to remain shuttered until April 3.

The interior and health ministries issued a separate statement, telling people they had to stay where they were, unless urgent business or health reasons forced them to move to another town or region.

Italy has registered more deaths than any other country in the world, while the number of confirmed cases is second only to China, with the tally rising by 5,560 to 59,138 on Sunday, the Civil Protection Agency said.

However, offering a ray of hope, the latest figures represented an improvement on Saturday, when the death toll rose by 793 and new cases increased by 6,557.

“We don’t want to get over enthusiastic or overestimate a trend, but compared to yesterday there is a slight drop in the figures,” said Franco Locatelli, the head of Italy’s top health council, which advises the government.

“We must not lower our guard, we must continue with the measures taken and respect the government’s instructions,” he told a news conference.

Regional leaders having been pushing Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte for days to tighten the screws as infections have spiralled, but some business leaders and financiers expressed alarm at his decision to shutter more companies.

“AT WAR”

“The closure of production activity is devastating. Our companies will lose market share and won’t be able to reopen for lack of liquidity,” Alberto Forchielli, head of Mandarin Capital Partners private equity fund, wrote on Twitter on Sunday.

“This is the end of Italy’s industrial system.”

Amongst the companies that said they were halting production in Italy were the world’s largest eyewear company, Luxottica.

However, union leaders accused Conte of not going far enough with his closure order, noting that dozens of sectors had won exemptions. They threatened to call a general strike if they thought too many workers were exposed to health risks.

In a video posted late Saturday night on Facebook, Conte said Italy was facing its most serious crisis since World War Two, with the health system in the wealthy north at breaking point and almost every intensive care bed now filled.

China has already sent medical equipment and doctors to help Italy, while more than 50 Cuban doctors arrived in Milan on Sunday to provide assistance to the stretched hospitals.

The Russian military said it would also start sending aid to Italy on the orders of President Vladimir Putin.

Domenico Arcuri, head of the government’s coronavirus relief effort, told state broadcaster RAI that Italy was “at war”.

“All wars are won in two ways, with one’s own army and with the help of ones’ own allies,” he said.

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Sprawling Mexican border camp ill-prepared for coronavirus

MEXICO CITY/NEW YORK CITY (Reuters) – Migrants in a sprawling encampment steps from the U.S. border in Matamoros, Mexico, have begun to isolate as best they can in their closely packed tents in preparation for the arrival of the coronavirus.

Local authorities and advocates are worried. A large outbreak of the epidemic here would threaten to “collapse” the city’s health system, one official warned.

For months, thousands of migrants, many U.S. asylum seekers returned under the Trump administration’s controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy implemented last year, have passed through the encampment nestled among brush by the river-border.

Cases of colds and flu spread rapidly, and advocates have decried poor health and sanitation conditions in the settlement that currently houses an estimated 2,000 people. Border towns like this will soon swell even further: The Mexican foreign ministry said it had agreed to accept Central Americans denied entry by U.S. officials as a result of a new policy implemented by the Trump administration in the wake of the outbreak.

If a large number of cases emerge in the camp, “there would be a collapse of the health system,” said Ulises Gonzalez De la Garza, a coordinator for the state health department in Matamoros.

“We lack personnel, we lack resources.”

Migrant populations around the world – often lacking in state provided healthcare and the ability to isolate themselves at home – are seen as among the most vulnerable to the spread of coronavirus.

Matamoros had a population of more than 520,000 people as of 2015, the national statistics institute says. Its five public hospitals have just 25 ventilators and 11 intensive care beds between them, according to the State Commission for Protection against Sanitary Risks.

Experts say that is a fraction of what would be needed to treat a large outbreak of COVID-19, the sometimes fatal disease caused by the coronavirus that in severe cases results in shortness of breath and lung failure.

So far the state of Tamaulipas has recorded just three confirmed cases of the virus, and there are no suspected cases in the camp, Gonzalez De la Garza said.

Julio Frenk, a former Mexican health minister, said the situation in Matamoros reflected a broader failure by Mexico’s government to prepare.

“(Migrants) are being sent back to a country that has not made the necessary arrangements to take care of not just them but also the general population once we start getting more cases,” said Frenk, now president of the University of Miami.

Critics have lambasted Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador for what they say is his relatively relaxed response to the coronavirus. He argues that the country must keep going to limit damage to the economy lest it hurt the poor and the elderly.

In recent days, the Trump administration has restricted traffic at the border.

Mexico has 251 confirmed cases of coronavirus, health authorities said Saturday, a fraction of the cases north of the border.

TENT ISOLATION

Health official Gonzalez De la Garza said the state was vaccinating migrants for the flu and distributing information about proper hygiene as well as coronavirus symptoms.

In the event of a suspected case, migrants will be instructed to stay in their tents as tests are sent to Mexico City for processing. Those who require hospitalization will be transferred about an hour away to the city of Reynosa, which has a similar supply of ventilators, Gonzalez De la Garza said.

Migrants who test positive but do not need to be hospitalized will be instructed to remain in isolation. Health officials are exploring the possibility of designating a special shelter for them, he said.

Joel Fernandez, a 51-year-old lawyer seeking asylum from Cuba, has already placed himself in isolation in his tent.

“The coronavirus kills,” he said. “I leave very little, only when necessary.”

However, experts caution that widespread social distancing is virtually impossible in the bustling camp of small domed tents. Migrants will soon begin spacing their tents further apart, said Fernandez, a member of the camp council.

Global Response Management, a nonprofit providing medical services, plans to step up care by building a 20-bed field hospital near the camp, to be staffed in alternating shifts by teams of five medical practitioners.

The group aims to bolster supplies so it can operate entirely from Matamoros in two weeks, citing concerns that further restrictions at the border could make it harder for volunteers to cross back and forth.

The camp hospital would help address another problem. Since September, the non-profit has sent more than 100 patients to already overstretched local emergency rooms, and only one was admitted, said Helen Perry, the group’s executive director.

“Like every other system in the world, their system is going to become overwhelmed at some point, and so we want to be prepared for when that eventuality comes,” said Andrea Leiner, the group’s director of strategic planning.

Gonzalez De la Garza stressed that public hospitals are attending to migrants.

Luz, a 42-year-old Peruvian migrant who fled domestic violence and asked that only her first name be used, said the mood in the camp has changed over the past week. U.S. volunteers are dwindling in number, and she has had less to eat.

“We are very afraid,” she said. “We are exposed to catching this disease.”

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Gibraltar in TOTAL social lockdown over coronavirus as Picardo warns ‘the time has come!’

Chief Minister Fabian Picardo announced the extraordinary measures, which he described as the hardest decision of his career, today, in the face of spiking numbers of cases in Spain, and ten in Gibraltar itself, and which include a ban on associating outdoors with anyone not living in the same household. And, following on from his remarks yesterday, when he criticised “idiotic” young people for continuing to socialise, he warned officers would be empowered to act against anyone failing to comply with the order to avoid congregating in groups and other infringements. Mr Picardo told reporters: “The time has come.

“We have reached another difficult moment in our work to slow down coronavirus COVID-19.

“The Director of Public Health has now advised that as the virus is in the population, the best way to achieve the social distancing required is to slow the disease to move to a total social lockdown.”

Regulations under the Civil Contingencies Act have therefore been signed by the Minister to provide for the lockdown.”

Mr Picardo said the new regulations would come into force at midnight on Tuesday, “in order to give people and businesses time to adjust.

He said the new rules were in addition to existing rules for over 70s, which remain unchanged.

He added: “Agreeing to the making of these regulations has undoubtedly been the hardest decision I have had to make in my political career so far.”

We will not hesitate to do what we have to do in order to slow the spread of the virus.”

The measures include:

  • Closure of schools for all except the children of key workers
  • Closure of all shops except supermarkets, grocery stores, pharmacies and chemists
  • Closure of all restaurants except as takeaway outlets
  • Closure of all commercial gyms

In an acknowledgement of the unique difficulties Gibraltar, which has more than 8,500 residents square mile, faces, Mr Picardo said: “Our demographic circumstances are different to most other nations.

“And our rules are designed to take those aspects of life in Gibraltar into consideration.

“Where necessary, we will review the rules in coming days.”

“Please let us keep focused on slowing down this virus.

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“Let us remember that failure is not the growth of the number of detected infections.”

Failure is an unnecessary increase in the number of deaths.”

Mr Picardo added: “To each and every one of my fellow Gibraltarians, I say at this time, even if you can do something under these rules, ask yourself if you should.

“You are permitted to go to work, but can you work thematically instead?

“You are permitted to go out for a purpose, but can you can manage in a different way?

“Tomorrow, start using your common sense.

“An invisible killer lurks amongst us and you can do your bit to slow its passage through our city by observing these rules.

“As from Tuesday morning, I am very sorry to say, the Royal Gibraltar Police will have power to enforce these regulations.

“We realise the heavy burden that will impose on our officers.

“Please help them by not knowingly contradicting rules that we are putting in place to protect you and your loved ones.

“This is about enhancing social distancing.”

There will be power to enforce these regulations by police officers for these purposes.”

The stringent rules would be reviewed in 30 days’ time, Mr Picardo said, and would be reconfirmed every 48 hours.

He added: “It’s time to brace for the worst and hope or pray for the best.

“These are measures we take with a heavy heart but for very good reason.

“So help us throughout this process.”

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Top Senate Republican sees Monday coronavirus vote, Pelosi plans own bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. lawmakers sent mixed signals on Sunday about whether they are near a deal on legislation to try to limit the economic toll of the coronavirus, with a Republican predicting a vote on Monday and a top Democrat saying she would introduce her own bill.

“We’re working toward bringing this together. I think it’s safe to say we’re very close,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told a news conference after an hour of talks with top lawmakers, saying he expected a Senate vote on Monday.

“We will be introducing our own bill,” Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said earlier as she left the meeting, while adding negotiators were still talking and that she hoped for a bipartisan agreement.

The bill, Congress’s third effort to blunt the economic hit, envisages financial aid for average Americans, small businesses and critically affected industries including airlines.

Among the areas likely to generate controversy are those aimed at helping corporations, rather than workers, weather the crisis, as well as provisions on whether to allow companies to buy back their own stock.

The virus has killed at least 380 and sickened more than 25,000 across the United States, leading governors and mayors to shut schools, businesses and many aspects of American life.

Over the past week President Donald Trump’s administration has been pushing for aggressive steps to stem the economic hit, after Trump spent several weeks downplaying the virus’ risks. Prominent Democrats on Sunday pushed back on the idea of propping up corporate America with the bill.

Earlier, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin predicted the White House and Congress would reach an agreement and Republican Senator Pat Toomey suggested there would be little opposition.

“I think it’ll be very hard to vote against this,” Toomey told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

During his news conference, McConnell suggested the differences were just part of the usual jockeying in Congress.

“It’s still some elbowing and maneuvering for room as you can imagine, but this is a pretty solidly bi-partisan proposal agreed to by a lot of rank and file Democrats who were involved in drafting it,” McConnell told reporters. “At some point here, we’ll have to stop and that’ll be the bill we vote on and in my opinion that’ll be tomorrow.”

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Ford, GM, Tesla getting 'go ahead' to make ventilators: Trump

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Sunday that U.S. automakers Ford Motor Co, General Motors Co and Tesla Inc had been given the green light to produce ventilators and other items needed during the coronavirus outbreak.

“Ford, General Motors and Tesla are being given the go ahead to make ventilators and other metal products, FAST! @fema Go for it auto execs, lets see how good you are?” he said on Twitter. It was not immediately clear what Trump meant by the companies “being given the go ahead.”

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China sees continued rise in imported coronavirus cases

BEIJING (Reuters) – China on Sunday reported 46 new cases of coronavirus, the fourth straight day with an increase, with all but one of those cases imported from overseas, according to the country’s National Health Commission.

While China has drastically reduced the number of reported domestically transmitted cases – the one reported on Sunday was the first in four days – it is seeing a steady rise in imported cases, mostly from Chinese people returning from abroad.

On Saturday, China reported 41 new coronavirus cases for the previous day, all of them imported.

Among the new cases from abroad, a record 14 were in the financial hub of Shanghai and 13 were in the capital Beijing, a decline from 21 the previous day.

The latest figures bring China’s total reported coronavirus cases to 81,054, with 3,261 deaths, including six on Saturday.

The central province of Hubei, where the outbreak first emerged late last year in its capital city of Wuhan, reported its fourth straight day of no new cases.

The new locally-transmitted case was in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou and was also the first known case where the infection of a local person was linked to the arrival of someone from overseas, according to Guangdong province.

Globally, roughly 275,000 people have been infected with the virus, and more than 11,000 have died, according to a Reuters tally, with the number of deaths in Italy recently surpassing those in China.

China has used draconian measures to contain the spread of the virus, including locking down Hubei province and more recently stepping up measures to screen and quarantine overseas arrivals.

The country is trying to restart an economy that is widely expected to contract deeply in the current quarter, with life slowly returning to normal in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, albeit with everyone wearing masks in public.

Still, numerous shops and restaurants remain shut – many have gone out of business – and factories and other workplaces are still not operating at full capacity.

“Now I think the epidemic has been controlled. But this definitely doesn’t mean that it’s over,” said a 25-year-old woman surnamed He who works in the internet sector and was visiting the vast Summer Palace complex in Beijing on Saturday.

“I’m willing to come out today but of course I am still afraid,” she told Reuters.

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First coronavirus cases confirmed in the Palestinian Gaza Strip

GAZA (Reuters) – The first two cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in the densely-populated Gaza Strip, Palestinian health officials said on Sunday.

Two Palestinians who had traveled from Pakistan and entered Gaza through Egypt had tested positive for the virus late on Saturday and have been in quarantine in Rafah, a town near the Egyptian border, since their arrival on Thursday, the Gaza health ministry said.

Schools, public markets and event halls have all been shut in Gaza over the past two weeks to minimize the risk of coronavirus transmission.

The coastal enclave, measuring 375 square kilometers (145 square miles) is home to around two million Palestinians and poverty and unemployment rates are high.

An Israeli-led blockade has put restrictions on the movement of people and goods for years, amid security concerns following the 2007 takeover of Gaza by the Islamist militant group Hamas, three subsequent wars and frequent rounds of violence.

Last week Hamas said it would allow only patients requiring urgent medical treatment outside Gaza to cross into Egypt or Israel. According to the Palestinian health ministry 53 people coronavirus cases have been confirmed in the occupied West Bank.

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Swiss coronavirus cases surge, canton orders seniors to stay home

ZURICH (Reuters) – Switzerland on Saturday reported 6,100 coronavirus infections, 25% more than a day earlier, and 56 deaths, the Swiss health ministry said, as the canton of Ticino that borders hard-hit Italy banned seniors over 65 from leaving their homes to shop.

“The situation in Ticino is very tense,” said Daniel Koch, head of the Federal Office of Health’s communicable diseases division. The latest count nationwide is up more than 1,200 cases in a day, while the deaths increased 13 from Friday.

The local government in Ticino, with so far 918 reported coronavirus cases and 28 deaths, ordered people aged 65 and over to stay home and only leave if they needed to visit the doctor or for work, Swiss radio SRF reported.

The government said that family members or specially organized municipal services should deliver food to older citizens while they are restricted to their homes, newspaper Corriere del Ticino said.

Seniors and those with health problems have been vulnerable to the virus that causes COVID-19. Italy, just across the border from Ticino, is the epicenter of Europe’s coronavirus crisis, as deaths in that country surged by 793 in a day, lifting the total death toll to 4,825 of 53,578 infected.

Speaking at a press conference in Bern, Koch said he had been in touch with Ticino’s top doctor, who had told him the arrival of patients was taxing hospital resources but that there were still sufficient beds to accommodate the critically ill, for now.

The Swiss military took delivery of 50 additional ventilators and deployed them in Ticino on Friday, amid a global race by countries to add more potentially life-saving breathing devices needed by critically ill patients to give them a fighting chance of survival.

Koch said the 25% rise in Swiss cases in 24 hours did not come as a surprise, given Switzerland only this week heightened restrictions on events and gatherings, including limits on groups in public to five people, with each keeping a 2-meter (6.6-ft) distance, under threat of a 100 Swiss franc ($101.37) fine.

The end of the crisis cannot yet be forecast, Koch said, but he expects at least the rate of increase in new cases to begin flattening out in a week or so, as the new limits on freedom of movement temper spread of the disease that has sickened nearly 280,000 globally and killed more than 11,000 people so far.

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UPDATE 4-U.S. Senate races to agree on massive coronavirus relief package

(Recasts with efforts to forge deal; adds fresh quotes from McConnell, Schumer and Rubio)

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON, March 21 (Reuters) – The Republican-led U.S. Senate scrambled on Saturday to forge a bipartisan agreement on a $1 trillion-plus bill aimed at stemming the economic fallout from the growing coronavirus outbreak, as talks neared a deadline for drafting and passing the legislation.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers worked behind closed doors to produce formal legislation by the end of the day that would aim to help individuals, small businesses and industries hard hit by the public health crisis.

White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow, who took part in the discussions, told reporters he expects the final legislative package to be worth $1.3 trillion to $1.4 trillion. Lawmakers shied away from putting an overall price tag on the package.

The prospective Senate bill, combined with actions undertaken by the U.S. Federal Reserve and the administration, would have a $2 trillion net impact on a U.S. economy facing powerful headwinds spawned by the outbreak, according to White House officials.

“We’re getting closer and closer to an agreement. And all the discussions have been in good faith,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who intends to hold a vote to pass the sprawling package on Monday.

“I think we’re clearly going to get there,” he told reporters.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said in mid-day remarks on the Senate floor that a number of issues were still outstanding but observed lawmakers were “making very good progress.”

Republicans and Democrats wrangled in private over how to get money into the hands of individuals impacted by the health crisis including proposals that would issue $1,000 checks to some Americans and utilize state unemployment insurance programs to provide income to those unable to work due to the effects of coronavirus on schools and employers.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio said lawmakers were close to agreement on a provision that could provide more than $350 billion in aid to small businesses via federally guaranteed loans that would be forgiven if used to sustain unemployment. The original proposal called for $300 billion in assistance.

“We’re talking about half the workers in America. We’d like to help even more people,” said Rubio, who chairs the Senate Small Business Committee. (Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Tom Brown and Chris Reese)

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Mexico's president thanks Trump for not closing border

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said on Twitter on Saturday that he spoke with his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump and thanked him for not closing their countries’ shared border.

Lopez Obrador said he also proposed accelerating the implementation of a regional trade deal between the United States, Mexico and Canada, the USMCA accord, in order to boost the countries’ economic recovery.

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