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British PM fights virus in ICU as global toll soars

Boris Johnson

LONDON: Britain’s prime minister was battling the coronavirus in intensive care yesterday, the highest-profile case in the pandemic as the United States and Europe saw their death tolls reach new milestones. Boris Johnson’s fight against the disease underscored the indiscriminate nature of COVID-19, which has restricted freedoms for some four billion people, wrecked the global economy and upended society.

Johnson spent the night in intensive care after being admitted with a deteriorating case of coronavirus, prompting serious concerns yesterday about his health and the government’s response to a still-escalating outbreak. Johnson asked Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to deputize for him shortly before he was moved to the intensive care unit of a London hospital on Monday evening. He had already spent a night in hospital after being admitted for tests on Sunday amid concerns that, 10 days since being diagnosed with COVID-19, he still had persistent symptoms including a cough and high temperature.

The 55-year-old is the most high-profile world leader to become infected with coronavirus, and his transfer to intensive care is unprecedented for a prime minister during a national emergency. Messages of support for Johnson flooded in from across Britain and the world. Cabinet minister Michael Gove said on Tuesday that the prime minister had been given “some oxygen support” but “he has not been on a ventilator” – although one is available if he needs it. In a round of broadcast interviews, Gove insisted the “work of government goes on”.

But Britain does not have a formal constitutional role of deputy prime minister, and it is not clear that Raab himself has the power to take big decisions if required. Johnson tweeted from his hospital bed on Monday lunchtime, saying he was in “good spirits”, and his spokesman said he remained in touch with his team. But his condition then rapidly went downhill, with Downing Street announcing that he had been moved to intensive care at about 7 pm (1800 GMT) in St Thomas’ Hospital. At the time, he was said to be conscious.

The pandemic’s relentless death march across the planet has already claimed more than 73,000 victims out of 1.32 million confirmed cases, with warnings that much worse is yet to come. A record new surge of 833 deaths in France and a jump in the Italian death toll on Monday doused tentative hopes of a beginning to the end of the agony in European hotspots. And the United States recorded 1,150 deaths over 24 hours, Johns Hopkins University said.

However, glimmers of hope flickered in the daily diet of deadly statistics, with US President Donald Trump tweeting there was “light at the end of the tunnel”. In New York state, the US epicenter of the crisis, the rate of growth in the death toll appeared to be slowing, although state Governor Andrew Cuomo warned that “now is not the time to be lax”. “New York City is fighting back. We have an invisible enemy. We have a ferocious enemy. But this city is fighting back with everything we’ve got,” said mayor Bill de Blasio.

In China, where the virus originated late last year, there were no new deaths reported for the first time. But amid fears of a second wave in Asia, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was expected to declare a state of emergency later yesterday as cases spike, especially in Tokyo. Singapore’s usually bustling business district fell silent as most workplaces closed to stem the spread amid a new surge of cases in the city-state.

The virus is stretching medical facilities to the limit and the World Health Organization warned there was a global shortage of six million nurses. People around the world have been forced to improvise as supplies run short, with bodies packed in cardboard coffins in Ecuador and a mosque converted into a makeshift mask factory in Iran. Undertakers in New York are so overworked that a city official raised the possibility of carrying out temporary burials in a public park.

“Trenches will be dug for 10 caskets in a line. It will be done in a dignified, orderly and temporary manner. But it will be tough for NYers to take,” tweeted Mark Levine. Funeral home director Pat Marmo from New York city said: “It’s almost like 9/11, going on for days and days and days,” referring to the terror attacks on the city in 2001.

As hospitals overflow, the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine in Manhattan is being converted to handle at least 200 patients beneath its stained-glass windows. “In earlier centuries, cathedrals were always used this way, like during the plague. So this is not outside the experience of being a cathedral, it is just new to us,” cathedral dean Clifton Daniel told the New York Times.

Governments around the world are scrambling to put together rescue packages to stem the economic damage from effectively shutting down global commerce, as fears loom of a devastating recession. Japan has promised a $1-trillion stimulus package, nearly twice as large as measures taken during the 2008 financial crisis and a staggering 20 percent of GDP in the world’s third-top economy.

With the ink barely dry on a $2-trillion economic rescue package passed by Congress, Trump said he favored another massive spending program, again roughly $2 trillion, but this time targeting infrastructure projects. “We built the greatest economy in the world. I’ll do it a second time,” he said.

EU finance ministers are expected to clinch a deal to use the eurozone’s 410-billion-euro bailout fund to fight the virus but the bloc remains divided on pooling debt to issue “coronabonds”. But France warned it was heading for its worst recession since World War II and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the European Union was facing its “biggest test” since its founding in 1957.

Analysts at Oxford Economics said the pandemic “may trigger annual GDP declines among the worst seen in the last 100 years” with millions of jobs being shed around the world. However, stock markets chose to see the glass half-full on Monday, with the Dow Jones index soaring 1,600 points as traders saw hope the pandemic was reaching its apex.

And away from the multi-billion packages and Wall Street swings, the coronavirus is affecting millions of ordinary people trying to make ends meet. On a usually bustling wharf in Senegal’s capital Dakar, 23-year-old fishmonger Galaye Sarr said his produce normally gets exported to Italy but trade has dried up. “The boats have been docked for a long time, all because of the coronavirus. And even if they go and catch fish, we can’t sell it,” he told AFP. “We’re still trying to keep going, hoping that one day God will rid us of the curse.” – Agencies

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