A Hundred Days After China Alerts WHO, World Reels From Pandemic

Workers bury bodies that succumbed to the novel coronavirus, in a trench on Hart Island, the Bronx, New York on Thursday, also known as potter’s field. (AP photo/John Minchillo)

(CN) — It was 1:38 pm on New Year’s Eve. The world was celebrating the coming of a new decade and the farthest thing from almost anyone’s mind anywhere in the world was the onset of a pandemic.

It was at that moment, 100 days ago Thursday, that the health commission in Wuhan, China, posted a bulletin on its website about the discovery of 27 people suffering from a viral pneumonia. The bulletin said there was no evidence the pneumonia was being transmitted between humans and that the cases were linked to a wet market in the industrial city called the South China Seafood Market.

This alert about a cluster of pneumonia cases “of unknown cause” was the first official notice to the World Health Organization that something wasn’t right in Wuhan.

One hundred days later, the world is grappling with what many consider humanity’s greatest crisis since the end of World War II.

Economies are shut down and experts warn this crisis could be akin to the Great Depression. More than 1.5 million people worldwide have been found infected with the novel coronavirus, now known as the cause for those initial 27 cases in Wuhan. More than 91,780 people have died worldwide, a majority of them in Europe.

“It’s incredible to reflect on how dramatically the world has changed, in such a short period of time,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, said during a news conference Wednesday.  

Thursday marked yet another grim day in this pandemic.

In Europe, the hardest-hit continent so far, the deaths continued to mount. So far, more than 60,000 people in Europe have died from Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

In Italy on Thursday: 610 more deaths. In Spain: 683. In France: 424.

But for the second day in a row, it was the United Kingdom that reported the most deaths in Europe. On Thursday, the U.K. added 881 new deaths on top of the 938 deaths it reported on Wednesday.

Elderly people with face masks to protect from the coronavirus go shopping at a market in Aachen, Germany, on Thursday. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Like most Europeans, Brits are living under a nationwide lockdown that has brought the country to a standstill. Lockdowns have become the world’s emergency measure to halt the spread of the lethal virus.

“It’s been almost three weeks and we’re starting to see the impact of the sacrifices we’ve all made, but the deaths are still rising and we have not reached the peak,” said Dominic Raab, the British foreign secretary, at a daily briefing in London Thursday afternoon.

Raab was standing in for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who contracted the disease and had to be hospitalized when his symptoms worsened. After three nights under intensive care, Johnson was in good enough shape to leave the ICU at St. Thomas’ Hospital in Westminster on Thursday evening.

As with other European countries, the U.K. is expected to extend the restrictions on its population for several more weeks after the Easter holidays, which will largely take place in private and online this year.

“Thank you for your sacrifice,” Raab told Brits from a lectern with the words “Stay Home for Easter” written on it. “But I must also say, we’re not done yet. We must keep going.”

Raab did not say how much longer Brits will be asked to stay indoors, but the government’s chief medical advisers said the peak of the outbreak in the U.K. is at least two weeks away, raising the likelihood that thousands of more people will die from the disease. A total of 7,978 people in the U.K. have died and more than 65,000 people have been infected. By comparison, 18,279 people have died in Italy and more than 143,000 people infected.

“I know these restrictions take their toll,” Raab said. But he said they must be kept in place to save lives and contain the outbreak.

Italy, the hardest-hit country in the world, is preparing to extend its lockdown until May 3, Italian media reported. Italy’s nationwide lockdown started on March 10 and it is expected to sink into a deep recession that the debt-ridden and tourism-dependent country will find tremendously difficult to recover from.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel said her country’s lockdown will have to be prolonged too. She said a detailed plan on lifting restrictions will be presented at the end of next week.

The pandemic is expected to wreak havoc on the European Union’s economy, with some estimates saying it could shrink by as much as 10% as factories, businesses, travel and construction are shut down.

Faced with a deep recession, the EU’s leaders are engaged in a major fight over how to pay for the damage caused by the pandemic. European finance ministers were trying to work out a plan on Thursday, but major disagreements between the bloc’s northern and southern countries have erupted over burden-sharing among the 19 countries that use the same currency, the euro.

Fearing they will be stuck with bailing out poorer southern countries, the Netherlands and Germany have resisted calls for an EU-wide government bond program to lessen the borrowing costs for less financially stable countries like Italy, Spain and Greece. These disagreements have added a political dimension to the crisis and raised fears that the EU could topple as a project under the weight of the damage caused by the pandemic.

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Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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