New Delhi, India, Mar 24 – India on Tuesday ordered its billion-plus population to stay inside, bringing a third of the world under lockdown as the coronavirus pandemic forced Japan to postpone the Olympics.
Financial markets soared after a brutal month as the US Congress looked set to pass a stimulus bill, joining the world’s central banks in major injections of cash in the face of the crisis.
Despite US President Donald Trump’s hopes that the economy will be back to normal within weeks, more governments are taking unprecedented action to stop potential virus-carriers going out and about.
Just as China, where the new virus emerged last year, began to loosen some controls, neighbouring India ordered its 1.3 billion people — the world’s second biggest population — to stay at home for three weeks.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “total lockdown” call doubled the number of people around the globe under some form of movement restriction to more than 2.6 billion people.
“To save India, to save its every citizen, you, your family… every street, every neighbourhood is being put under lockdown,” Modi said in a televised address.
He spoke as the epidemic continued to cut a swathe through the world’s sporting, cultural and social agenda, forcing the Tokyo 2020 Olympics to be pushed back to next year.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tried to sound an optimistic note, vowing that the 2021 Olympics would be “a testament to mankind’s defeat of the new virus”.
It marks the first time that the world’s biggest sporting event, set to open on July 24, has been delayed in peacetime.
The Games had come under growing pressure as Olympians from the United States, Canada and Australia pressed for a delay, warning not only of uncertainties this year but of athletes’ inability to practice during the pandemic.
– ‘You can destroy a country’ –
Across the planet, the grim COVID-19 toll continued to mount, with more than 18,000 deaths and 400,000 declared infections, half of them in Europe according to an AFP tally.
Many governments are listening to health experts who warn the only way to slow the epidemic — and save the lives of the elderly and vulnerable — is by imposing “social isolation” measures on a population.
But Trump is not convinced that the move is worth the enormous economic cost of sending workers home and closing “non-essential” businesses.
“A lot of people agree with me. Our country — it’s not built to shut down,” Trump told Fox News. “You can destroy a country this way by closing it down.”
He voiced hope that the United States would be back “raring to go” by Easter, which falls on April 12 for most Christians.
Trump — who faces re-election in November after three years of touting economic growth — said that a “massive recession or depression” would trigger suicides.
“Many people — in my opinion, more people — are going to die if we allow this to continue,” he said.
But many state authorities have decided that the temporary pain is worth it to stem the virus. Nearly 130 million Americans, or 40 percent of the population, are under or will soon come under some lockdown order, including in the largest state of California.
– Markets rebound on stimulus –
Global markets on Tuesday recouped some of the month’s brutal losses. The Dow Jones Industrial Index surged 11.3 percent, its biggest rally in percentage terms since 1933 during the Great Depression.
The massive rise comes as US legislators reported headway on a $2 trillion rescue package that would be the largest emergency spending effort ever and inject cash both into the hands of consumers and businesses.
“At this point, of the few outstanding issues, I don’t see any that can’t be overcome in the next few hours,” top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer said after meeting Trump’s negotiator, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
The US Federal Reserve earlier unveiled an unprecedented bond-buying programme, in a move not seen since the global financial crisis more than a decade ago.
And on Tuesday, finance ministers and central bank chiefs of the Group of Seven major industrial democracies vowed to “do whatever is necessary to restore confidence and economic growth and to protect jobs, businesses, and the resilience of the financial system”.
There were also reassuring signs on the health front.
China lifted two months of travel restrictions on more than 50 million residents of Hubei province — the initial epicentre of the disease.
The travel shutdown will be eased on April 8 for Wuhan, where the virus was first detected, apparently triggered by a meat market that butchered exotic animals.
“We are celebrating today,” a female doctor surnamed Wu told AFP. “The doctors and nurses are becoming more and more relaxed as the days go by.”
The situation is still critical in Europe, where hardest-hit Italy had mixed news.
Italy’s death toll shot back up to 743 after two days of slight decline from a world-record peak of 793 on Saturday.
But officially registered new infections rose just eight percent for the second straight day.
“The measures we took two weeks ago are starting to have an effect,” civil protection service chief Angelo Borrelli told the daily La Repubblica, saying the next few days will show if the growth is truly flattening.
– Daily life upended –
Elsewhere in Europe, Ireland ordered non-essential businesses shut, Britain planned a 4,000-bed emergency hospital in London and Spain called for practical support from the NATO military alliance.
The extraordinary measures being imposed around the world have radically altered daily life and have also revealed horrifying tales.
Soldiers in Spain tasked with fighting the outbreak reported finding abandoned elderly people — some dead — at retirement homes.
Younger people have been warned not to visit elderly loved ones to avoid spreading the virus to the most vulnerable.
“It’s very hard for the families not knowing what’s happening inside,” admitted Pauline, a teacher whose mother is living in an elderly care home in Paris where the virus has been detected.
Countries in Africa, where health systems are often fragile, are also ramping up their response to the virus as cases and deaths rise.