Russia, Poland and Iran each hit new COVID-19 records
Even Pope Francis was subject to new coronavirus rules, staying at a safe distance from well-wishers at his weekly audience on Wednesday.
In Lisbon, football fans were unsurprised after Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo tested positive, saying it simply showed everyone was at risk of getting infected – and famous athletes were no exception.
Tougher measures will be imposed from Thursday in Portugal to contain the spread, including stricter limits on gatherings and heavier penalties for rule-breaking establishments.
Prime Minister Antonio Costa is also pushing for a nationwide face mask law and the compulsory use of the country’s tracing app in some workforces.
Portugal, a nation of just over 10 million people, initially won praise for its quick response to the pandemic, recording a comparatively low 91,193 confirmed coronavirus cases and 2117 deaths, but cases have crept back up.
Major European economies such as Germany, England and France have so far resisted pressure to close schools, but in Germany, politicians are debating whether to extend the Christmas-New Year school break to reduce contagion.
The Netherlands has returned to partial lockdown, closing bars and restaurants, but keeping schools open.
The Czech Republic, with Europe’s worst rate per capita, has shifted schools to distance learning and plans to call up thousands of medical students. Hospitals are cutting non-urgent medical procedures to free up beds.
“Sometimes we are at the edge of crying,” said Lenka Krejcova, a head nurse at Slany hospital near Prague, as builders hurried to turn a general ward into a COVID-19 department.
The United Kingdom, France, Russia and Spain accounted for more than half of Europe’s new cases in the week to October 11, according to the World Health Organisation.
French President Emmanuel Macron was expected to unveil further restrictions on Wednesday, with local media reporting that city curfews were under consideration.
“Curfew … this is a word we haven’t heard in a long time,” shrugged pensioner Francis Boutry at a Paris market, recalling the 1954-62 Algerian war. “What can we do? We have to stop this virus somehow.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces opposition calls for another national lockdown in England, but has so far resisted.
Hospital admissions, however, are climbing and field hospitals constructed in the spring are once more being readied.
Britain reported 19,724 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, a rise of 2490 from the day before, and a daily death toll of 137, compared to Tuesday’s 143.
Northern Ireland has already announced it will close schools for two weeks and restaurants for four, while the Welsh government said it would enact a law to prevent residents from high-risk areas of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland from visiting.
In Spain, authorities in Catalonia have ordered bars and restaurants to close for 15 days and limited the numbers of people allowed in shops.
In Belgium, with Europe’s second worst infection rate per capita, hospitals must now reserve a quarter of their beds for COVID-19 patients.
‘We are on the brink of disaster’
Poland is ramping up training for nurses and could consider setting up military field hospitals for coronavirus patients, as daily reported cases hit a record 6526 on Wednesday, officials said.
“I don’t have any good information. We are on the brink of disaster,” said Polish immunologist Pawel Grzesiowski.
He said Poland should be doing more testing, closing schools and supporting doctors in their fight against the pandemic. Instead, he said, the government was trying to blame doctors for the difficult situation.
Deputy Prime Minister Jacek Sasin said on Twitter earlier this week that some doctors were refusing to join coronavirus teams.
Health authorities say Poland has enough hospital beds and respirators for now to tackle the pandemic but localised shortages cannot be ruled out.
The country of 38 million has recorded 141,804 confirmed coronavirus cases so far and 3217 deaths, with the largest cities of Warsaw and Krakow seeing fast increases.
As of Wednesday, COVID-19 patients occupied 6084 hospital beds and were using 467 ventilators out of around 1000 available overall, compared with 5669 and 421 respectively a day earlier.
Poland’s ruling nationalists prided themselves on acting swiftly and containing the pandemic in the spring, when the government launched strict curbs on social life, closing schools and shopping centres, among other measures.
But the opposition and some doctors have accused the cabinet of not preparing the health system for a second wave and a fresh spike in COVID-19 cases.
Russia sees record daily caseload
On Wednesday, Russia’s coronavirus taskforce said that it had recorded 14,231 new coronavirus cases in the last 24 hours, the most of any day since the pandemic began. In the same period, 239 people died, it said, bringing the death toll to 23,205.
Although the number of new infections has been steadily rising in recent days, the Russian authorities have said they see no need to impose any lockdowns or restrictions on economic activity.
Home to nearly 13 million people, Moscow has been the area of the country hardest-hit by the pandemic, reporting more than 4500 new infections.
Sergei Sobyanin, the city’s mayor, said students from grades six to 11 would be taking online classes for a two-week period starting on Monday, while younger students would continue attending school as usual.
For the past two weeks students have been on a holiday designed to prevent them from contracting the virus and taking it home.
Sobyanin said older students would be studying online at home because they accounted for two-thirds of children infected with the virus.
“The decisions that we have made today are not easy but are simply necessary taking into account both the epidemiological situation and the need for schoolchildren to receive a quality education,” he wrote on his website.
Health Minister Mikhail Murashko said the coronavirus situation in the country remained extremely strained and that many people were not following all safety guidelines.
Since the start of the pandemic, Russia has recorded 1,340,409 infections, the fourth largest number of cases in the world behind the United States, India and Brazil.
Italy struggles to contain the virus
In Italy, there were 7332 new coronavirus infections recorded on Wednesday, the country’s highest ever daily tally and steeply up from 5901 on Tuesday.
There were also 43 COVID-related deaths against 41 the day before – far fewer than at the height of the pandemic in March and April when a daily peak of more than 900 deaths was reached.
Before Wednesday, the highest daily tally of new cases had been reported on March 21, in the middle of a nationwide lockdown, with 6557 cases. On that same day 793 people died.
Although Italy’s daily deaths remain relatively low, the number of people in intensive care with the virus has risen steadily.
Italy was the first country in Europe to be slammed by COVID-19 and has the second-highest death toll in the continent, with 36,289 fatalities since the outbreak flared in February, according to official figures.
Thanks to one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, the government managed to get the contagion under control by the summer, but infections have soared again in the last few weeks.
Nonetheless, Italy is still recording significantly fewer daily cases than France, Spain and Britain.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said he was determined to avoid a new general lockdown just as the economy was recovering from the last one.
However, some of the country’s most prominent scientists say closing down the country again may be the only way to stop infections continuing to spiral.
Iranian virus death toll hits record high
The bleak statistics in Europe were on Wednesday mirrored in some areas of the Middle East.
For the third time in a week, Iran marked its highest single-day record for new deaths and infections from the coronavirus, with 279 people killed and 4830 new patients.
Health Ministry spokeswoman Sima Sadat Lari made the announcement as Iran struggles with the worst outbreak in the Middle East, with more than 513,000 confirmed cases. It has seen over 29,300 deaths and 414,800 recoveries since announcing its first cases in February. Iran has a population of more than 83 million.
In recent weeks, Iran has seen daily death tolls spike to their highest-ever levels, sparking increasing concern even as government officials continue to resist a total lockdown for fear of cratering the economy, which has been hit hard by US sanctions.
On Wednesday, Iran announced a travel ban to and from five major cities, including the capital of Tehran and the holy city of Mashhad, to prevent infections spreading. Kianoush Jahanpour, a Health Ministry spokesman, told state TV that the travel ban aimed to reduce risks ahead of a religious holiday on Saturday. Iran’s weekend is Thursdays and Fridays.
The coronavirus has spread to some of the highest levels of Iran’s government, many of whom are older men. Among those recently infected is the head of the country’s atomic energy organisation, while Iran’s vice-president in charge of budget and planning also tested positive for the coronavirus on Sunday.