(CN) – Spain’s death toll from the coronavirus pandemic shot past that of China on Wednesday after it reported a stunning 738 more deaths, its most in a day.
Spain is second in deaths only to Italy, which overtook China’s toll of 3,287 last week. Victims continue to mount in Italy, which reported 683 more deaths on Wednesday, bringing its toll to 7,503.
Although the number of newly infected people and deaths remains extremely high in Italy, the country reported for the fourth day in a row a decrease in new infections. On Wednesday, Italy reported 3,491 new infections, raising hopes that a nationwide lockdown is helping contain the spread of the virus, known as Covid-19.
Still, the World Health Organization is warning countries against letting down their guard. Most prominently, U.S. President Donald Trump this week said he wants to see the country back to work by Easter.
“The last thing any country needs to do is open schools and businesses to only have to close them again,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, said during a news conference in Geneva on Wednesday evening.
He said he understands the social and economic costs of imposing lockdowns, but he urged countries to avoid lifting restrictions without first taking numerous steps to bolster testing and tracking of infections and beefing up health systems to handle potential new outbreaks once restrictions are lifted.
Tedros said “asking people to stay at home is buying time” for countries to better handle the deadly virus. “But this won’t extinguish epidemics,” he said.
Italy won praise from WHO in handling its outbreak.
“Italy is breaking down its problem” by seeking to find and isolate people with the virus province-by-province, said Dr. Mike Ryan, WHO’s emergency program director.
“We admire our colleagues in Italy, they are heroes,” Ryan said. “We like and support the way they are breaking the problem down.”
Despite Trump’s mixed messages on the virus, Tedros, when asked, praised Trump and said he stood by a laudatory tweet he sent Tuesday about Trump.
He said Trump was taking a “whole-of-government” approach and pushing for research into the virus, leveraging the private sector to supply medical needs, expanding testing and helping educate the public about the virus.
When asked about Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s recent comments saying fear over the virus was overblown hysteria, Tedros and his team withheld from criticizing the far-right Brazilian leader but warned that the virus is a serious danger.
Bolsonaro’s controversial comments come as Brazil faces a growing number of cases. It has reported 2,297 cases and 48 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University.
“This virus is public enemy No. 1, it is a dangerous virus,” Tedros said. “The time to act was a month ago or two months ago.”
He said the restrictions on movement imposed in so many countries – about a third of the world’s population is now under lockdown – must be used to detect, isolate and treat as many people as possible who are carrying the virus.
“This is a second opportunity that we must not squander” to defeat the virus, he said. “Political leadership is key and it has to mobilize” people.
The virus is beginning to spread into southeastern Asia and Africa, posing new dangers.
On Wednesday, India imposed a nationwide lockdown on its 1.3 billion people after it saw a sharp increase in cases. There are now 606 confirmed cases and 11 deaths linked to the virus in India, according to Johns Hopkins University data.
“It’s really important to cut it from the bud” in India, Tedros said.
Ryan said he was hopeful that India can contain the virus, noting that it has tackled epidemics in the past with incredible success.
“India got rid of polio at the village level,” he said. “By breaking it down.”
He said the same can be said about African countries that have proven to be effective at combating infectious diseases.
There are about 1,600 cases of Covid-19 in sub-Saharan Africa and the number is growing quickly, an alarming trend for such an impoverished and war-torn continent. There have been about 60 deaths in Africa related to the coronavirus.
The WHO called on richer countries to help fight the virus in Africa.
“The north must move to help the south,” Ryan said.
Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, a lead expert at WHO, said it is crucial to stop the virus in Africa. She said models projecting what could happen if it spreads unimpeded there are dire.
“Some of those numbers are quite scary,” she said. “They are quite high.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.