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Coronavirus crisis puts EU credibility on line: French minister

Iran Press TV

Sunday, 29 March 2020 4:54 PM

A French minister says how the European Union responds to the coronavirus outbreak will determine its future credibility as the pathogen continues to take a heavy toll across the bloc.

"If Europe is just a single market when times are good, then it has no sense," French State Secretary for European Affairs Amelie de Montchalin told France Inter radio on Sunday.

De Montchalin's comments came after the European Union failed to agree last week on measures to soften the economic blow of the pandemic and prepare for an eventual recovery.

Germany and the Netherlands came out strongly against a push by Italy, Spain, Portugal and France to issue joint bonds to help finance an economic stimulus.

There were also arguments over the sharing of medical equipment and border controls.

De Montchalin stated that there could be no financial rebound in Germany and the Netherlands if the rest of Europe remained sick. The coronavirus crisis raised existential questions for Europe, she added.

"Our Europe is one of action, one of solidarity, and if certain countries see otherwise, well then the question of their place will raise itself, as what the union should be doing as a group of 27," said de Montchalin.

Europe's populist parties could be the winners if EU leaders failed to act collectively throughout a serious crisis, she stated.

As the coronavirus crisis persists in the EU, particularly in Italy, Spain, Germany and France, the lack of cooperation on some fronts within the bloc is attracting criticism.

The EU has been struggling to coordinate a joint response to the coronavirus outbreak and to counter the economic impact of the epidemic.

The novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, initially emerged in China late last year and is now spreading across the globe. Worldwide, there have been more than 664,100 confirmed cases of the virus and over 30,880 deaths.

The economic damage has also intensified, with business districts beginning to empty and stock markets to tumble.

Analysts say the world economy is headed for a sharp downturn, where several countries could plunge into recession this year.

China on alert for second wave of coronavirus

A growing number of imported coronavirus cases in China, where the epidemic originated in December, has risked fanning a second wave of infections while domestic transmissions have "basically been stopped", a senior health official says.

China, where the disease first emerged in the central city of Wuhan, has an accumulated total of 693 cases entering from overseas, which meant "the possibility of a new round of infections remains relatively big", spokesman for the National Health Commission (NHC) Mi Feng said on Sunday.

Nearly a quarter of those came from arrivals in Beijing.

"Beijing, the capital, still bears the brunt of the risks," Xu Hejian, spokesman for the Beijing government, told reporters.

"There's no reason to lay back and relax yet. It's not a time when we can say everything is going well."

Most of those imported cases have involved Chinese returning home from abroad.

A total of 3,300 people have now died in mainland China, with a reported 81,439 infections.

China was initially accused of a delayed response when suspected cases first emerged in December, with a young doctor reprimanded for "spreading rumors" when he tried to raise the alarm.

But the world's most populous country has since won praise from the World Health Organization for its efforts to lock down affected areas and isolate patients.

In the last seven days, China has reported 313 imported cases of the coronavirus but only six confirmed cases of domestic transmission, NHC's data showed.

There were 45 new coronavirus cases reported in the mainland on Saturday, down from 54 on the previous day, with all but one involving travelers from overseas.

Airlines have been ordered to sharply cut international flights from Sunday. And restrictions on foreigners entering the country went into effect on Saturday.

Five more people died on Saturday, all of them in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province. It has reported only one new case in the last 10 days.

Saturday marked the fourth consecutive day that Hubei recorded no new confirmed cases.

The sole case of domestically transmitted coronavirus was recorded in Henan province, bordering Hubei.

With traffic restrictions in the province lifted, Wuhan is also gradually reopening borders and restarting some local transportation services.

All airports in Hubei resumed some domestic flights on Sunday, with the exception of Wuhan, which will open to domestic flights on April 8.

Flights from Hubei to Beijing remain suspended.

A train arrived in Wuhan on Saturday for the first time since the city was placed in lockdown two months ago.

Restrictions have also been eased on people looking to return to the capital, although the procedure still appears much more vigorous as it's done on an application approval basis.

More than 7,000 have returned to Beijing from Hubei by charted trains or private cars, Beijing government official Mao Jun said on Sunday.

On a cold and rainy Sunday, Wuhan streets and metro trains were still largely empty.

The Hubei government said on its official WeChat account that a number of malls in Wuhan, as well as the Chu River and Han Street shopping belt, would be allowed to resume operations on Monday.

Coronavirus fear sparks Thai prison riot

In Thailand, prisoners set fire to the canteen of jail and several inmates escaped during a riot that was sparked by rumors of a coronavirus outbreak, a senior justice ministry official said.

News reports showed large plumes of smoke rising above the prison in Buriram province, which holds about 2,000 inmates, both male and female.

"A small group of prisoners received lifetime sentences earlier this week so they spread the rumor that the facility is unsafe for COVID-19," the official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said.

"A hundred prisoners joined them in staging the riot."

The Thai government has stopped all prison visits since March 18 in a bid to stop the coronavirus spreading across the country's overcrowded correctional facilities.

Police officers were deployed to contain the situation, including pursuing prisoners who escaped in the chaos, police deputy spokesman Krisana Pattanacharoen told Reuters.

Restrictions on movement have been imposed in several Thai provinces as the total number of coronavirus cases reached 1,388, with 143 new cases reported on Sunday.

Thailand also reported one new coronavirus death, bringing the total there to seven.

German health institute warns pandemic could overstretch system

Germany's health system could face strains similar to those in Italy if the coronavirus outbreak in the country worsens, the head of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), the federal agency responsible for disease control, told a newspaper.

Lothar Wieler's comments came as RKI data on Sunday showed the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany has risen to 52,547 and 389 people had died of the disease there.

"We cannot rule out that we will have more patients than ventilators in this country ... Of course, we must expect that the capacities will not be sufficient," Wieler told Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

Compared to other countries hit by the pandemic, Germany has a low mortality rate among coronavirus patients.

"This is primarily because we are testing so many people," Wieler told the paper, adding the large number of tests means that Germany has many cases in its statistics of younger people suffering only mild symptoms.

"We are still at the beginning of the wave, and I can only urge everyone to take the pandemic very seriously," Wieler said, adding that it will not be possible to assess the impact of the adopted measures until Easter at the earliest.

Coronavirus outbreak entering new phase: Moscow

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said the coronavirus outbreak had entered a new phase as the total number of cases in the Russian capital exceeded 1,000 with many Muscovites going out despite a plea to stay home.

Authorities in Moscow, Russia's worst-affected area, shut shops and entertainment venues from Saturday and urged Muscovites to stay at home during the non-working week announced by President Vladimir Putin.

But at least 52,000 people took walks in the city parks on Saturday, and many elderly people made long trips on the city's vast public transportation network, Sobyanin said on his website on Sunday.

"The situation with the spread of coronavirus has entered a new phase. More than 1,000 cases of the disease have already been recorded in Moscow. Nobody is insured," Sobyanin wrote.

"An example of miserable Italian and Spanish cities, even New York, where tens and hundreds of people die every day, is in front of everyone's eyes."

The official tally of confirmed cases in Russia rose by 270 in 24 hours, bringing the total to 1,534.

Nine people have died of the coronavirus, seven of them in Moscow.

Saudi seizes 5 million illegally stored medical masks

Saudi authorities have seized more than five million medical masks that were illegally stockpiled amid the coronavirus outbreak, state media reported.

The commerce ministry seized 1.17 million masks from a private store in Hail, northwest of the capital, after authorities Wednesday confiscated more than four million masks stored in a facility in the western city of Jeddah in violation of commercial regulations, the official Saudi Press Agency reported on Sunday.

The ministry said people behind such activities would be prosecuted, and that the confiscated masks would be redistributed to the open market.

Pharmacies in the oil-rich kingdom have reported shortages of masks amid panic buying, as authorities warned against prices hikes.

Saudi Arabia is scrambling to limit the spread of the deadly disease at home.

The kingdom's health ministry has reported more than 1,200 COVID-19 infections and four deaths so far, the highest number of cases in the Persian Gulf region.

It has imposed a nationwide partial curfew, barred entry and exit from Riyadh as well as Islam's two holiest cities Mecca and Medina and prohibited movement between all provinces.

King Salman warned last week of a "more difficult" fight ahead against the virus, as the kingdom faces the economic double blow of virus-led shutdowns and crashing oil prices.

Netherlands tops 10,000 coronavirus cases

The number of confirmed novel coronavirus cases in the Netherlands has passed the 10,000 mark, the authorities say, as the country focuses on building up herd immunity rather than confining the population of 17 million.

A total of 771 people have died from the COVID-19 epidemic in the Netherlands and 10,866 have tested positive, the country's institute for public health and environment (RIVM) said on Sunday.

The Dutch government has adopted a series of measures to fight the virus, but has decided so far not to force people to stay home.

A review of the policy is due to be unveiled on Tuesday.

"The number of reported hospital admissions and the number of deceased patients appears to be increasing less rapidly than would be expected without measures in place," the institute said on its website.

"In a number of days, it can be concluded whether the number of hospital admissions and the number of deaths among reported patients is actually leveling off, and thus how well the measures are working."

More than two-thirds of the more than 31,000 deaths worldwide from coronavirus have now been recorded in Europe and the Netherlands has warned people will be put under confinement if the measures already taken do not work.

Schools, bars, restaurants, coffee houses and even brothels have been shut down since March 16, while school-leaving exams have been cancelled.

All public gatherings and events now require official authorization and social distancing of 1.5 meters (5 feet) has been imposed in shops and on public transport under threat of fines.

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