Europe’s Mounting Virus Cases Prompt Tougher Government Response

(Bloomberg) --

Europe solidified its status as the new epicenter of the coronavirus, with new cases and fatalities rising particularly in Spain and France, prompting governments to seek more extensive lockdowns in their battle to slow the pandemic.

In Spain, the death toll rose by 31% to 1,002, according to the health ministry, with the total number of confirmed cases rising by 2,833, to 19,980. While number of new cases slowed from the previous day, that may be due to limited testing. The picture was similarly bleak in France, which reported a 41% increase in fatalities, to 372, and almost 11,000 confirmed cases.

While China, where the virus originated late last year, is reporting no new cases, Europe remains firmly in the grip of the pandemic even as governments shut borders and expand measures to enforce social distancing. Bavaria became the first German state to ban public gatherings, a move that is likely to be emulated by the other 15 states.

“We are almost completely winding down public life in Bavaria,” Premier Markus Soeder said at a news conference in Munich Friday. Germany has more than 15,000 confirmed cases, though its death toll is a comparatively low 44.

Tighter Controls

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said this week that the coronavirus represents her country’s biggest challenge since World War II, will consult regional leaders Sunday to discuss efforts to contain the outbreak. Schools in Germany have been closed for the better part of a week, retailers have shut their doors, and many restaurants are open only during the day.

Austria, with about 2,300 cases, is extending its lockdown measures until the Easter holiday but isn’t tightening them further, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said. Italy, Europe’s hardest hit country, with 3,405 fatalities, has been under government-enforced lockdown for the past week. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s government is set to reinforce and extend the near-total quarantine after the number of fatalities surpassed China’s. The extension may include a ban on outdoor sports and on “passeggiate,” or strolls, with citizens allowed to leave their homes only for work, health reasons, or emergencies.

Surging Fatalities

Globally, the virus is spreading far more aggressively: it took three months for the first 100,000 cases to be reported, but the next 100,000 were reached in 12 days, on March 18. By Friday -- two days later -- the tally was halfway to the 300,000 mark.

In the U.K., deaths from the outbreak more than doubled, to 144, between Tuesday and Thursday, and the government has stepped in to close schools to most pupils and channel financial aid to businesses. U.K. government advisers said on Friday that citizens may need to keep away from each other for most of the year to contain the spiraling outbreak.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron said people need to strike the right balance between social distancing and keeping the country operational. While “partying on the streets” and “going to the beach” is plainly irresponsible, people in crucial lines of work should continue doing their jobs, he said.

The growing number of border closings have disrupted free movement within the EU -- one of the pillars of European integration -- making it harder to transport key supplies.

“We need to find a middle way,” Macron said.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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