SARS-CoV-2 (shown here in an electron microscope picture). Credit: National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH

A number of countries tightened anti-coronavirus measures on Saturday, with France extending a curfew and Belgium unveiling its own as the death toll in Germany exceeded 10,000 and the US reported 80,000 infections in a single day.

In the Belgian capital, Brussels, authorities have increased their curfew by an hour, and in Poland, President Andrzej Duda tested positive for COVID-19.

The World Health Organization warns of an “exponential” increase in infections that threaten health systems’ ability to cope.

But populations tired of social isolation and economic hardship have opposed further restrictions, and clashes between Italian police and hundreds of protesters in hard-hit Naples.

In the US, the virus has become a key issue ahead of the November 3rd presidential election. President Donald Trump promised participants in a rally in Florida on Friday that “we will end this pandemic, this terrible plague quickly”.

Contender Joe Biden agreed with Trump’s vow to provide a vaccine to everyone free of charge, “whether you are insured or not,” and accused Trump of “relinquishing” control of the outbreak.

Johns Hopkins University reported 79,963 new US cases in 24 hours, a record despite the fact that the number of daily deaths has more or less stabilized between 700 and 800.

In total, more than 223,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the United States.

France followed Spain on Friday after the one million case milestone as the government extended an overnight curfew to around 46 million people.

Prime Minister Jean Castex said Saturday that a further € 700 million will be made available to help poor people hardest hit by the pandemic.

And after Germany recorded its 10,000th coronavirus death, Chancellor Angela Merkel said: “It is the order of the day to reduce contacts (and) meet as few people as possible.”

“Close to capacity”

On Friday, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that “too many countries are seeing exponential increases in COVID-19 cases, and this is now causing hospitals and intensive care units to be near or over capacity”.

“We urge the heads of state and government to take immediate action to prevent further unnecessary deaths,” he added.

That message has been endorsed by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), but steps to reintroduce restrictions have met with protest in parts of the continent.

In Naples, hundreds of protesters responded to a call on social media to resist a new curfew, throw items at the police and set trash cans on fire.

The country is emerging from its worst post-war recession after a grueling two-month national lockdown sparked by one of the worst outbreaks in Europe and authorities have been reluctant to renew drastic quarantine restrictions.

Wales entered a full lockdown late Friday, a day after Ireland closed, while Poland went into a nationwide lockdown that partially closed elementary schools and restaurants.

President Duda, 48, said in a tweet that he tested positive but “felt good” and was still on duty.

After Spain became the first European country to officially register a million coronavirus cases earlier this week, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said on Friday the actual number of infections was likely more than three times as high.

“We are overwhelmed”

Around the world, the pandemic has now killed 1.1 million people and infected nearly 42 million. The WHO warned that the northern hemisphere was at a particularly critical point.

In Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed province of Azerbaijan, doctor Lusine Tovmasyan said that among the people she tested in the regional capital, Stepanakert, “between 40 and 60 percent test positive,” often those who seek shelter in narrow underground spaces.

Belgium has experienced one of the deadliest per capita outbreaks in Europe and some of the highest second wave infection rates in Europe.

“We are losing. We are overwhelmed. We are bitter,” said Benoit Misset, head of the intensive care unit at the University Hospital in Liège, where several medical professionals had to work even though they were positive – albeit asymptomatic – themselves.

In addition to setting a new curfew at 10:00 p.m. (2100 GMT from Sunday), shops in Brussels are now set to close at 8:00 p.m. and sport or cultural events are to be canceled.

In the meantime, the international search for a vaccine continued. Clinical trials for a candidate from AstraZeneca and Oxford University resumed in the United States on Friday, six weeks after a subject fell ill.

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© 2020 AFP

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