Saturday, May 15, 2021


Europe's lockdown gets tighter as Spain's death toll mounts

European governments moved to tighten restrictions to contain the coronavirus outbreak amid an unrelenting rise in infections and deaths.



Spain reported 812 coronavirus fatalities on Monday, a slight decline from the previous day's figure that took the number of casualties from the pandemic to well past 7,000.

As the country battles Europe's worst outbreak after Italy, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez announced plans for even tighter restrictions on public life, ordering those who work in non-essential services to stay home during the Easter period. Austria, Greece and Cyprus followed on Monday by stepping up their own measures.

European leaders are preparing people for a prolonged period of severe disruptions and minimal social contact.

After Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz last week raised prospects of easing restrictions soon, he dashed those hopes on Monday and instead tightened aspects of the lockdown. People will now have to wear face masks while shopping in supermarkets; hotels will be closed completely for tourism; and people that are particularly at risk due to prior illnesses must be relieved from work requirements.

"Many still don't realize what we're facing," Kurz told journalists in Vienna, noting that businesses and stores will eventually open before schools and universities. "The truth is, this is a marathon."

Austria was among the first countries after Italy that closed schools and imposed lockdown measures starting on March 16. Since then, the pace of new positive tests has slowed down to just over 10% per day from more than 30%, but it's still above the target set by the government, which is now more closely tracking death rates and intensive-care cases.

Greece is extending the closure of non-essential shops until April 11 and stopped all flights to and from the Netherlands and almost all connections with Germany, after already cutting links to Italy, Spain, Turkey and U.K.

Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis's government also stepped up measures to counter the economic fallout. The package now amounts to 3.5% of Greece's gross domestic product, up from 2% previously.

Starting on Tuesday, Cyprus will introduce a total curfew from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. local time, the health ministry said. Leaving home to buy food or medicine, personal exercise or dog walking will be restricted to one outing a day. Cyprus is also looking at ways to prevent people who are in isolation after having testing positive from breaking their quarantine, including electronic surveillance.

The stiffer rules come amid unsettling economic data. Business sentiment in the euro area plunged the most on record as the prospects dwindled that life will return to normal any time soon. The European Commission reading followed similarly downbeat reports out of the region's biggest economies.

In Germany, the government's economic advisers predicted that the coronavirus pandemic will give the nation its worst recession since the global financial crisis.

If most restrictions are lifted in mid May, output is expected to shrink by 2.8% this year, according to a report by the German Council of Economic Experts. If restrictions last longer or production is further halted, Europe's biggest economy could contract by as much as 5.4%. Either outcome would be the deepest downturn since 2009 for Europe's biggest economy.

The German government, which plans to ask listed companies to suspend dividend payments to qualify for assistance, sought to quash an emerging debate about loosening restrictions. Chancellor Angela Merkel's chief spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said "we need all measures" to stem the spread. Officials will make an assessment once the increase in the number of infections slows to a rate of doubling every 10 days, compared with a current trend of five days, he said.

The southern German state of Bavaria, which has become the hardest hit in the country, provided a snapshot. Even if the curve is "somewhat flattening," the situation remains "very, very serious," premier Markus Soeder said, as he extended restrictions measures until April 19.

In Hungary, the parliament handed Prime Minister Viktor Orban unprecedented emergency powers to combat the outbreak, giving him the right to rule by decree indefinitely.

There's another kind of political fallout looming in Poland, where pressure is growing on the ruling party to delay the May 10 presidential election. The first government official publicly called for the vote to be postponed on Monday, as municipalities grow wary of organizing as many as 300,000 volunteers to supervise and count ballots.

In Spain, the number of confirmed cases increased to 85,195 over the past 24 hours, with a total of 7,340 deaths, according to Health Ministry data. The number of new cases declined slightly to 6,398, compared with 6,549 on Sunday.

Sanchez's government is trying to balance the need to ease the burden on the health service by limiting social interaction, while also seeking to mitigate the economic impact of a near-total nationwide lockdown.

The strain on Spanish hospitals was highlighted over the weekend when the number of patients who require intensive care surpassed the number of available beds. The number of ICU patients rose to 5,231 on Monday compared with 4,907 on Sunday, the ministry said. Hotels and conference centers are being used as make-shift clinics and the army has been deployed across the country to assist.

Sanchez has joined French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in calling for a joint European economic response, including shared bond issuance, which Germany, the Netherlands and Austria oppose.

Published : March 30, 2020

By : Syndication The Washington Post, Bloomberg · Rodrigo Orihuela, Boris Groendahl, Sotiris Nikas