It’s been just over two weeks since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak, which first appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late December, a global pandemic.
To date, more than 510,000 people have been infected worldwide, with more than 22,900 people dying from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
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Infections, the rates of which have accelerated since the outbreak began, have touched nearly every corner of the world and prompted unprecedented and widespread travel restrictions and business closures that threaten a global recession. At least three billion people, including India’s 1.3 billion population, have been ordered to stay home.
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Even as new cases in China have dropped dramatically, leading to the easing of many restrictions, places such as Italy, Spain, Iran, and the United States have become new hot spots for the virus, for which there is no vaccine or proven treatment.
The speed and severity with which the virus has swept across the planet have left international organisations, governments and individuals reeling.
But the last few months have not been without developments that offer reasons for hope.
Here are six positive stories to watch:
WHO launches global trial of possible treatments
The WHO launched a global trial to quickly assess the most promising treatments for the virus and the disease it causes. The organisation is currently looking at four drugs or drug combinations that were developed for other illnesses and are already approved for human use and could be made widely available.
The simplified study will rely on data generated from thousands of patients at participating hospitals in countries around the world, while requiring little extra time and effort from already overwhelmed medical personnel.
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As of March 20, Thailand, Argentina, Bahrain, Canada, France, Iran, Norway, South Africa, Spain and Switzerland had signed on to participate in the trial.
During the global study, according to Science magazine, a physician can enter the information of a hospitalised infected person, who has signed a consent form, into a WHO website. The physician will tell the WHO website which of the possible treatments are available at the hospital, and the website will randomly assign the patient to one of the drugs available or to the local standard of care.
Physicians will record the day the patient left the hospital or died, the duration of the hospital stay, and whether the patient required oxygen or ventilation, Ana Maria Henao Restrepo, a medical officer at WHO’s Department of Immunization Vaccines and Biologicals, told the magazine.
The massive data set it yields could quickly indicate which treatments are the most effective.
“We are doing this in record time,” Restrepo told Science.
UK call for volunteers exceeds expectations
United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday night called for 250,000 volunteers to help deliver groceries and medicine to the most vulnerable citizens who have been ordered to self-isolate.
Within 24 hours, more than 400,000 people had signed up. That number soon rose to more than half a million, according to the BBC – larger than Britain’s armed forces, which currently stand at just over 192,000.
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Under the National Health Service volunteer plan, healthcare professionals and some charities will be able to request help for their at-risk patients, who will then be matched with volunteers who live near them.
Any adults who are fit and healthy can apply to help deliver medicine from pharmacies, drive patients to appointments, or make regular phone calls to check on people.
About 11,000 former medics also agreed to return to the health service, while more than 24,000 final-year student nurses and medics will also aid the health system.
Air pollution drops
A silver lining of countries locking down across the planet, grinding transport and most industry to halt, has been a marked decline in air pollution.
Satellite imagery has shown pollution in China plummeting as large swaths of the country shut down at the height of the outbreak there.
The European Environment Agency (EEA) on Wednesday confirmed that the concentration of pollutants, in particular nitrogen dioxide, which is largely caused by road transport, recently massively declined in Europe “especially in major cities under lockdown measures”.
In Milan, the industrial capital of Italy, the average concentrations of nitrogen dioxide for the past four weeks have been at least 24 percent lower than four weeks earlier in the year, according to EEA.
COVID-19 forced the closure of coal-fired power plants and industrial facilities, inevitably leading to a drop in pollution [AFP]
In Bergamo, the average concentration of the pollutant during the week of March 16 to March 22 was 47 percent lower than for the same week in 2019. And in Rome, the average nitrogen dioxide concentrations for the past four weeks were between 26 and 35 percent lower than for the same weeks in 2019.
The trend can be seen beyond Italy: In Spain, Barcelona’s average nitrogen dioxide levels went down by 40 percent from one week to the next. Compared with the same week in 2019, that reduction was 55 percent.
In Madrid, the average nitrogen dioxide levels went down by 56 percent from one week to the next. Compared with the same week in 2019, the reduction was 41 percent.
Italy coronavirus outbreak ‘peak’ may soon be reached
Experts have urged patience in awaiting the outbreak of coronavirus in Italy, the world’s largest hot spot, to reach its peak. Scientists have been forced to learn about the new virus in real time as it spreads, making predictions particularly difficult.
Italy has so far recorded more than 8,000 deaths and over 80,000 infections.
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On Saturday, Italy recorded its highest daily death toll of 793 new fatalities from COVID-19.
However, since then the daily toll, while remaining high, has not surpassed that number. Daily new cases have also leveled off.
The numbers are grounds for tentative optimism, WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Strategic Initiatives, Ranieri Guerra, told Italian radio station Radio Capital, Italian newswire ANSA reported on Wednesday.
“The slowing in the pace of growth is an extremely positive factor, and in some regions, I believe we are close to the drop-off point of the curve, therefore the peak may be reached this week and then fall away,” Guerra said.
Guerra also told the radio station that the effect of Italy’s nationwide lockdown – which began on March 9 and was tightened in the following days – could soon be reflected in the number of cases.
“I believe that this week and the first days of the next will be decisive because they will be moments in which the government’s measures of 15 to 20 days ago should find an effect.”
US hospitals prepare to use blood plasma as treatment
US hospitals are gearing up to test a century-old treatment used to fight off flu and measles outbreaks in the days before vaccines, and tried more recently against Ebola and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). This treatment might also work for COVID-19.
The US Food and Drug Administration said it is expediting approving the use of recovered patients’ plasma to treat the newly infected.
When a person gets infected by a particular virus, the body starts making specially designed proteins called antibodies to fight the infection. After the person recovers, those antibodies float in survivors’ blood – specifically in the plasma, the liquid part of blood – for months, even years.
The Empire State Building and the skyline of New York City are seen while a man walks around a local park in Weehawken, New Jersey [Eduardo Munoz/Reuters]
Injecting the plasma into another infected patient could boost the body’s ability to fight the infection, lessening the severity of the disease and freeing up hospital resources.
“Every patient that we can keep out of the ICU [intensive care unit] is a huge logistical victory because there are traffic jams in hospitals,” Michael Joyner, an anesthesiologist and physiologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, told Nature scientific journal.
“We need to get this on board as soon as possible, and pray that a surge doesn’t overwhelm places like New York and the West Coast.”
Doctors in China attempted the first COVID-19 treatments using donated plasma from survivors of the new virus, but studies done there have only yielded preliminary results.
Cuban doctors sent to help overwhelmed Italian health system
Cuba has dispatched a brigade of doctors and nurses to Italy to aid in the fight against coronavirus, following a request from the worst-affected Lombardy region.
Cuban doctors head to Italy to fight coronavirus
While the UN has called on international cooperation to battle the pandemic, many countries have been forced to focus on their own populations, as healthcare systems across the world face supply and staffing shortages.
Cuba has sent its “armies of white robes” to disaster sites around the world since its 1959 revolution. However, the 52-strong brigade of medical personnel represents the first time Cuba has sent an emergency contingent to Italy, which has been brought to its knees by the pandemic, despite being one of the world’s richest countries.
“We are all afraid but we have a revolutionary duty to fulfill, so we take out fear and put it to one side,” Leonardo Fernandez, 68, an intensive care specialist, told Reuters news agency shortly before his brigade’s departure.
“He who says he is not afraid is a superhero, but we are not superheroes, we are revolutionary doctors,” he said.
US coronavirus deaths may reach 200,000: Top scientist
US deaths from coronavirus could reach 200,000 with millions of cases, the government’s top infectious disease expert warned on Sunday as New York, New Orleans, and other major cities said they would soon run out of crucial medical supplies. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, estimated in an interview…
US deaths from coronavirus could reach 200,000 with millions of cases, the government’s top infectious disease expert warned on Sunday as New York, New Orleans, and other major cities said they would soon run out of crucial medical supplies.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, estimated in an interview with CNN that the pandemic could cause between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths in the United States.
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But Fauci, a leading member of President Donald Trump’s coronavirus taskforce, quickly added: “I don’t want to be held to that … It’s such a moving target that you can so easily be wrong and mislead people.”
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By way of comparison, the flu has killed between 12,000 and 61,000 Americans a year, since 2010, according to the website of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the 1918-19 flu pandemic killed 675,000 in the US, according to the CDC.
Asked about the persistent shortage of tests for the COVID-19 disease, Fauci struck a slightly more optimistic tone, saying, “If you compare a couple of weeks ago to where we are right now, we have an amazingly larger number of tests than we had.”
Asked how soon the wider availability of testing might allow a lifting of travel and work restrictions, Fauci said, “It’s going to be a matter of weeks. It’s not going to be tomorrow and it’s certainly not going to be next week. It’s going to be a little bit more than that.”
A shortage of ventilators in several major cities worsened as the US death count crossed 2,100 on Saturday, more than double the level from two days ago. The US has now recorded more than 123,000 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, the most of any country in the world.
New York City will need hundreds more ventilators in a few days and more masks, gowns and other supplies by April 5, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Sunday.
New Orleans will run out of ventilators around April 4 and officials in Louisiana still do not know whether they will receive any ventilators from the national stockpile, the governor said.
Louisiana has tried to order 12,000 ventilators from commercial vendors and has received 192, Governor John Bel Edwards said on CBS’s Face the Nation.
“We haven’t yet been approved for ventilators out of the national stockpile. I continue to press that case, and I hope we will be cut in for a slice of what they have left,” Edwards said. “It is the one thing that really keeps me up at night.”
Doctors are also especially concerned about a shortage of ventilators, breathing machines needed by many of those suffering from the pneumonia-like respiratory ailment.
‘We are scared’
Arabia Mollette, an emergency medicine physician at Brookdale and St Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, has started praying during the cab ride to work in the morning before she enters what she describes as a “medical warzone”. At the end of her shift, which often runs much longer than the scheduled 12 hours, she sometimes cannot hold back tears.
“We’re trying to keep our heads above water without drowning,” Mollette said. “We are scared. We’re trying to fight for everyone else’s life, but we also fight for our lives as well.”
On Saturday, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned residents of New York, Connecticut and New Jersey against non-essential domestic travel for 14 days.
Tests to track the disease’s progress also remain in short supply, despite repeated White House promises they would be widely available.
Since the virus first appeared in the US in late January, Trump has vacillated between playing down the risks of infection and urging Americans to take steps to slow its spread.
As Iran coronavirus deaths rise, Rouhani hits back at criticism
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has hit back at criticism over the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, saying he had to weigh protecting the country’s sanctions-hit economy while tackling the worst outbreak in the region. Iran, one of the world’s hardest-hit countries from the virus, reported 123 more deaths on Sunday in the past 24 hours, pushing…
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has hit back at criticism over the country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, saying he had to weigh protecting the country’s sanctions-hit economy while tackling the worst outbreak in the region.
Iran, one of the world’s hardest-hit countries from the virus, reported 123 more deaths on Sunday in the past 24 hours, pushing its overall toll to 2,640 amid 38,309 confirmed cases.
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The president reacted on Sunday at criticism of its lagging response to the worst coronavirus outbreak in the region, which has so far infected 38,309 people in the Islamic Republic, and killed more than 2,600 others – according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University in the United States.
Rouhani described international outcry at the government’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak in Iran as a “political war”, saying he had to weigh protecting the economy while tackling the virus, labelled a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Leaders around the world are struggling to strike a balance between containing the pandemic and preventing their economies from crashing.
Speaking at a cabinet meeting, Rouhani said the government had to consider the effect of mass quarantine efforts on Iran’s beleaguered economy, which is under heavy US sanctions.
“Health is a principle for us, but the production and security of society is also a principle for us,” Rouhani said. “We must put these principles together to reach a final decision.”
“This is not the time to gather followers,” he added. “This is not a time for political war.”
In May 2018, President Donald Trump withdrew the US from a landmark nuclear deal signed three years earlier between Iran and world powers. Washington has since imposed crippling sanctions on Tehran that prevent it from selling oil on international markets.
Iran has urged the international community to lift sanctions and is seeking a $5bn loan from the International Monetary Fund.
Last week, United Nations rights chief called for any sanctions imposed on countries like Iran facing the new coronavirus pandemic to be “urgently re-evaluated” to avoid pushing strained medical systems into collapse.
“At this crucial time, both for global public health reasons, and to support the rights and lives of millions of people in these countries, sectoral sanctions should be eased or suspended,” UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said.
In recent days, Iran has ordered the closure of nonessential businesses and banned travel between cities. But those measures came long after other countries in the region imposed more sweeping lockdowns.
Just over a week after saying he expected the measures taken to curb the spread of the coronavirus to be eased by early April, Rouhani warned on Sunday that “the new way of life” in Iran was likely to be prolonged.
“We must prepare to live with this virus until a treatment or vaccine is discovered, which has not yet happened to date,” he added.
“The new way of life we have adopted” is to everyone’s benefit, Rouhani noted, adding that “these changes will likely have to stay in place for some time”.
After the president’s warning, the reopening of schools following this year’s Persian New Year holidays of March 19 to April 3 appears unlikely.
On a positive note, Rouhani said he had been told by top health experts and doctors that “in some provinces, we have passed the peak [of the epidemic] and are on a downward trajectory”.
Coronavirus lockdown: India grapples with migrant workers’ exodus
A nationwide lockdown in India – the world’s largest – over the coronavirus pandemic is wreaking havoc on thousands of migrant workers in the capital, New Delhi. With few transport options available, thousands of people, mostly young male day labourers but also families, have resorted to commuting on foot during the 21-day lockdown that started on Wednesday.…
A nationwide lockdown in India – the world’s largest – over the coronavirus pandemic is wreaking havoc on thousands of migrant workers in the capital, New Delhi.
With few transport options available, thousands of people, mostly young male day labourers but also families, have resorted to commuting on foot during the 21-day lockdown that started on Wednesday.
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The workers started fleeing New Delhi after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the lockdown, which effectively put millions of Indians living off daily earnings out of work. Construction projects, taxi services, housekeeping and other informal sector employment came to a sudden halt.
Delhi: Migrant workers in very large numbers at Delhi’s Anand Vihar bus terminal, to board buses to their respective home towns and villages. They have walked to the bus terminal on foot from different parts of the city. pic.twitter.com/IeToP3hX7H
— ANI (@ANI) March 28, 2020
Modi said the extreme measure was needed to halt the spread of the coronavirus in India, which has confirmed more than 900 cases and 20 deaths, and where millions live in cramped conditions without regular access to clean water.
India’s finance ministry announced a 1.7 trillion rupees ($22bn) economic stimulus package that will include delivering grains and lentil rations for three months to 800 million people, about 60 percent of the world’s second-most populous country.
Mass exodus of workers
But thousands of India’s most vulnerable, who fear dying not of the disease caused by the new virus but rather of starvation, have decided not to wait.
Ram Bhajan Nisar, a painter, his wife and two children – aged five and six – were part of a group of 15 who set off by foot from New Delhi to Gorakhpur, a village in Uttar Pradesh state on the border with Nepal some 650km (400 miles) away.
“How can we eat if we don’t earn?” Nisar asked, adding that his family had enough to make it four or five days without work, but not the full three weeks of the stay-at-home order.
Nisar said on Saturday that a bus had taken his family overnight from the border overpass area to the Uttar Pradesh district of Shahjahanpur.
From there, they walked and hitchhiked on a farm tractor trolley, their hunger temporarily abated by a meal in a Sikh temple and handouts from good samaritans on the road as they inched closer to home. They planned to wait at a bus stop for government transport to take them the rest of the way.
If no bus stopped, Nisar said, the group would continue walking or hitchhiking until they reached their villages.
“Many migrant workers feel they have no choice but to walk home. They are walking along highways, along train tracks with no access to food, no access to basic sanitation,” said Al Jazeera’s Elizabeth Puranam, reporting from New Delhi.
Governments asked to act
Authorities sent a fleet of buses to the outskirts of New Delhi on Saturday to meet an exodus of migrant workers desperately trying to reach their native villages.
Delhi state’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said on Twitter that both Uttar Pradesh and Delhi governments have arranged buses for the stranded workers.
“I still appeal to everyone to stay where they are,” he said. “We have made arrangements for living, eating, drinking, everything in Delhi. Please stay at your home. Do not go to your village. Otherwise, the aim of the lockdown will be over.”
Puranam said Delhi’s homeless shelters are overflowing with people and the state government has decided to convert public schools into shelters from Sunday.
The government of Uttar Pradesh, which borders New Delhi, sent a fleet of public and private buses with room for 52,000 people to a highway overpass area on the Delhi border where thousands were stranded, according to state government spokesman Awanish Awasthi.
As crowds swelled at border checkpoints across India, the regional governments were advised on Saturday to set up tented accommodation along highways for migrant workers and establish relief camps in cities.
Regional governments have also been asked to inform migrant workers on the steps being taken in a bid to prevent them from leaving their current whereabouts, a Home Ministry spokeswoman said.
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