Europe, US virus tolls surge as Trump reverses on New York lockdown

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Rome (AFP) - The coronavirus death toll shot past 20,000 in Europe on Saturday, with Italy and Spain each reporting more than 800 dead in one day, as US President Donald Trump pulled back on putting the hard-hit New York region under quarantine.

Up to one-third of the world's population is under lockdown as the virus leaves its devastating imprint on nearly every aspect of society: wiping out millions of jobs, straining health care services and weighing heavily on national treasuries for years to come.

Globally, the death toll has surged past 30,000 and officials in some countries say the worst still lies ahead.

But in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus outbreak first struck, officials took tentative steps back toward normality, partly reopening the city after more than two months of near total isolation for its population of 11 million.

Trump decided late Saturday against imposing a broad lockdown on New York and its neighbours after a strong pushback from local political leaders and warnings of the panic it could spark.

"A quarantine will not be necessary," Trump tweeted, about eight hours after he stunned the New York metropolitan region, the epicentre of the US coronavirus outbreak, with a proposal to place it under quarantine to prevent residents from leaving.

Instead, he was asking federal authorities to issue a "strong Travel Advisory" against movement to and from the area.

Trump's reversal came on the same day the US death toll topped 2,100, more than doubling in just three days. Of the 2,147 deaths, more than a quarter -- 672 -- were in New York City.

Health officials say they fear New York may follow the deadly path charted by Italy, with health professionals exhausted and hospitals desperately short of protective equipment and ventilators.

The United States now has the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the world, at 122,666, according to a tally from Johns Hopkins University.

One of the deaths announced Saturday was that of an infant in Chicago who was younger than one year old, marking an extremely rare case of juvenile death in the global pandemic.

- Italy and Spain -

Compared to the US, European nations have been harder hit on a per capita basis, with 20,059 deaths.

Italy on Saturday announced 889 new deaths, pushing it past the 10,000 mark.

Spain, which has the world's second-highest death toll, added 832 deaths for a total 5,812.

Madrid toughened a nationwide lockdown, halting all non-essential activities, though officials said the epidemic in the country seemed to be nearing a peak.

Russia, which has reported relatively low levels of the virus, said it would close its borders Monday in an attempt to slow the pandemic's spread.

More than 640,770 cases of the novel coronavirus have been officially recorded around the world since the outbreak began late last year, according to an AFP tally.

Variations in testing regimes -- and delays in providing sufficient tests in some countries -- mean the true number is likely far higher.

In France, which has seen close to 2,000 deaths, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe warned the "battle" was just beginning. The first two weeks in April would be even tougher than the past fortnight, he said.

The British toll passed 1,000 on Saturday.

Elsewhere, Iran announced 139 more deaths and India sealed off a dozen Punjab villages that had been visited by a guru now known to be infected and a possible "super-spreader".

Sri Lanka and Qatar recorded their first deaths and Turkey hit 100 fatalities.

South African police resorted to rubber bullets in Johannesburg to enforce social distancing on a crowd queuing for supplies outside a supermarket during a national lockdown.

- Wuhan partially reopens -

Two months of almost total isolation appear to have paid off in Wuhan.

Residents have been subject to dramatic restrictions on daily life and forbidden to leave the city since January, but on Saturday, people were allowed to enter Wuhan and most of the subway network restarted.

In the US, Trump invoked emergency powers on Friday to force automaker General Motors to produce medical equipment. With 60 percent of the US in lockdown, the president signed the largest relief package in US history, worth $2 trillion -- with more seen as likely in coming months.

- 'Enough, enough' -

In Italy, one coronavirus sufferer, a cardiologist from Rome who has since recovered, recalled his hellish experience.

"The treatment for the oxygen therapy is painful, looking for the radial artery is difficult. Desperate other patients were crying out, 'Enough, enough'," he told AFP.

Infection rates in Italy are on a downward trend. The head of the national health institute Silvio Brusaferro predicted a peak "in the next few days".

Belgium and Luxembourg saw a steep climb in deaths, with 353 recorded in the former on Saturday -- up from 289 the day before -- and 15 in the grand duchy, up from nine.

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.

Other countries across the world were bracing for the virus's full impact.

As even rich countries struggle, aid groups warn the toll could be in the millions in low-income countries and war zones such as Syria and Yemen, where health care systems are in tatters.