Global coronavirus cases pass 1.5 million amid fears of second wave of outbreaks

Peter Beaumont, Sarah Boseley and Helen Davidson
Photograph: Barcroft Media/Getty

Confirmed global coronavirus infections have passed the 1.5 million mark, as a new study of containment measures in China suggests that countries preparing to ease their lockdowns will have to continuously monitor potential new cases to prevent a second deadly outbreak.

The running count kept by Johns Hopkins University was updated, as many countries around the world entering the Easter and Passover holidays or anticipating the Ramadan month of fasting warned citizens to continue to abide by physical distancing measures.

In the US, figures showed that a staggering one in 10 workers – 16.8 million – had lost their jobs in the past three weeks. There are fears that the total could hit 20 million by the end of the month.

While countries such as Spain and Italy reported that their rates of infection were beginning to plateau, others reported record one-day rises, including Russia, where the president, Vladimir Putin, warned that the coming weeks would be decisive in the fight against the virus.

For a second day in a row Singapore reported a sharp rise in new infections. The Asian city-state had been regarded as a coronavirus success story, and the latest figures will intensify concerns about the ability of Covid-19 to rebound after lockdowns are eased.

The uneven progress of countries’ efforts to control the virus has led researchers in Hong Kong to warn that nations will have to monitor closely for new infections and adjust the measures in place until a vaccine is available.

China’s aggressive controls over daily life have brought the first wave of Covid-19 to an end, the researchers say, but the danger of a second wave remains high.

“While these control measures appear to have reduced the number of infections to very low levels, without herd immunity against Covid-19, cases could easily resurge as businesses, factory operations and schools gradually resume and increase social mixing, particularly given the increasing risk of imported cases from overseas as Covid-19 continues to spread globally,” said Prof Joseph T Wu of the University of Hong Kong, who co-led the research.

Europe remains the hardest-hit continent, with 787,744 confirmed cases. Italy has the highest death toll (18,279), followed by Spain (15,238). France has had 10,869 deaths and Britain 7,978.

Nevertheless, some European countries say they are seeing light at the end of the tunnel. In Spain, the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, said his country was close to the start of a decline in the epidemic. He urged all political parties to join a pact for national economic revival after the health crisis.

The German health minister, Jens Spahn, said restrictions on public life were taking effect. “The number of newly reported infections is flattening out. We are seeing a linear increase again rather than the dynamic, exponential increase we saw in mid-March,” he said.

With the annual cycle of major holidays associated with the Abrahamic religions under way, world leaders and health officials are warning that hard-won gains must not be jeopardised by people relaxing physical distancing measures.

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Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, warned against even short trips, to the seaside or the mountains or relatives, saying they “can’t happen over Easter this year”. Spaniards appear to be responding to the strict confinement rules applied more than three weeks ago, as authorities made extra calls for them to remain at home during the traditional April break. And in New Zealand, police warned people not to drive to their holiday homes over Easter, saying they risked arrest.

In New York, the worst-hit state in the US, the governor, Andrew Cuomo, delivered a similar message: “We are flattening the curve because we are rigorous about social distancing. But it’s not a time to be complacent. It’s not a time to do anything different than we’ve been doing.”

The US has by far the most confirmed cases, its figure of 430,000 three times the number of the next three countries combined. New York state on Wednesday recorded its highest one-day increase in deaths, 779, making an overall death toll of almost 6,300. More than 40% of the 15,000 US deaths have occurred in New York.

In China, a slight increase in new cases was reported for the second day, as the number of infections involving travellers arriving from abroad hit a two-week high.

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Meanwhile, in an escalating feud between Taiwan and the World Health Organization, key figures publicly traded accusations. The WHO director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said on Wednesday that he had been subjected to months of attacks, including racist ones against him and black communities, and accused Taiwan of condoning the “campaign”.

On Thursday, Taiwan’s foreign ministry demanded a clarification and apology for the “groundless” accusation and an “extremely irresponsible act of slander”. It said the government in no way condoned or encouraged personal attacks on Tedros.

“Taiwan’s 23 million population also experiences serious discrimination from the global health system,” the ministry said. “We can relate [to Tedros] and we condemn any form of discrimination and injustice.”

The feud largely stems from Taiwan’s continued exclusion from WHO membership and activities because of lobbying by the Chinese government, which claims Taiwan as its territory.

Taiwan has had extraordinary success in preventing a major outbreak, and has repeatedly complained that it has been left out of the global response coordination.

Meanwhile, health officials in Africa warned that if Covid-19 was left to spread on the continent the world would remain at risk. According to the WHO, fewer than 5,000 intensive care unit beds are available across 43 of the continent’s 54 countries.

“We cannot be neglected in this effort,” the head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, John Nkengasong, told reporters. “The world will be terribly unsafe, and it will be completely naive, if countries think they can control Covid-19 in their countries but not in Africa.”