Governments grapple with virus border closures, lockdowns
BERLIN: Governments grappled Wednesday with how to implement border closures, travel restrictions and lockdowns that have caused transportation chaos and imperiled economies, but which authorities say are needed to slow the coronavirus pandemic.
European Union leaders agreed to shut down the bloc's external borders for 30 days, while the US and Canada were working on a mutual ban on nonessential travel between the two countries.
In Southeast Asia, the causeway between Malaysia and the financial hub of Singapore was eerily quiet after Malaysia shut its borders, while the Philippines backed down on an order giving foreigners 72 hours to leave from a large part of its main island.
The administration of President Donald Trump was considering a plan to immediately return to Mexico all people who cross America's southern border illegally, according to two administration officials who spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because the plan hasn’t been finalized.
The coronavirus is now present in every US state after West Virginia was the last to report an infection. Hawaii's governor encouraged travellers to postpone their island vacations for at least the next 30 days, while the governor of Nevada — home to Las Vegas — ordered a month-long closure of the state's casinos.
Increasingly worried about the economic fallout of the global shutdown, the US, Britain and the Netherlands announced rescue packages totaling hundreds of billions of dollars, while longtime International Monetary Fund critic Venezuela asked the institution for a $5 billion loan.
Major Asian stock markets fell back after early gains on Wednesday after Wall Street jumped on Trump's promise of aid.
In Brussels, Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, said there had been "a unanimous and united approach” to the decision to prohibit most foreigners from entering the EU for 30 days.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said European leaders agreed in a conference call to the commission's proposal for an entry ban to the bloc — along with Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Britain — with "very, very limited exceptions." Germany will implement the decision immediately.
On Monday, the EU issued guidelines to ease the flow of critical goods like food and medicine, while helping individual nations restrict nonessential travel.
But on Tuesday, there was chaos at borders, with traffic backed up for dozens of kilometres (miles).
“We are all desperate, cold and sleepless here for a third day," said Janina Stukiene, who was stuck in Lithuania on the border with Poland with her husband and son. "We just want to go home.”
The line of cars and trucks in Lithuania was about 60 kilometres (37 miles) long after Poland closed its border. Similar traffic jams were visible on the borders with Germany and the Czech Republic.
Droves of Malaysians endured hours-long traffic jams as they sought to get into Singapore before the border closure. More than 300,000 people commute daily to Singapore to work and many have chosen to stay there during the lockdown.
Malaysia's restricted movement order came after a sharp spike in coronavirus cases to 673, making it the worst-affected country in Southeast Asia. About two-thirds of the cases are linked to a mass religious gathering at a mosque in a Kuala Lumpur suburb that has also sickened participants from Brunei, Singapore and Indonesia.
The self-governing island of Taiwan said Wednesday that it too would ban foreigners from entry and Taiwanese would have to self-quarantine at home for 14 days.
In Thailand, Bangkok's notorious red light districts were due to go dark Wednesday after a government order closing bars, schools, movie theatres and many other venues.
French President Emmanuel Macron tightened internal guidelines, allowing people to leave home only to buy food, go to work or do essential tasks. He said people had not complied with earlier guidelines and “we are at war.”
Even tourists on Ecuador's iconic Galapagos islands — 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) off the South American mainland — have been affected.
Canadian Jessy Lamontaine and her family were stuck on the island when flights were suspended and they missed the last trip out.
“I was in tears this morning,” Lamontaine said. “I couldn’t get any answers from the airline. I had no money and didn’t know whether I was going to keep my job.”
Galapagos Gov Norman Wray said the 2,000 foreigners who remain on the archipelago in the next week will have the possibility of leaving on charter flights or those approved by the government. They won't be able to go home immediately, however, as a ban international flights will remain until the emergency measures are lifted.
The global number of cases worldwide of the virus now exceeds 198,000, though more than 81,000 of them have recovered, mostly in China.
The virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, for most people, but severe illness is more likely in the elderly and people with existing health problems. COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, has killed more than 7,900 people.
In Italy, infections jumped to 27,980 on Tuesday. With 2,503 deaths, Italy accounts for a third of the global death toll.
Spain, the fourth-most infected country, saw its cases rise by more than 2,000 in one day to 11,178. Deaths from COVID-19 jumped to 491, a toll that included 17 elderly residents of a Madrid nursing home who died over five days.
Among them was the 86-year-old diabetic grandmother of Ainhoa Ruiz.
“We feel totally helpless and devastated because my grandma spent her last week only with her husband and caretakers but no other relatives,” Ruiz said.
Some bright spots emerged. Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the virus was first detected late last year and which has been under lockdown for weeks, reported just one new case for a second straight day Wednesday.
In the US, the death toll surpassed 100, and officials urged older Americans and those with health problems to stay home. They also recommended all group gatherings be capped at 10 people.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio warned that residents should be prepared for the possibility of a shelter-in-place order within days. A shelter-in-place order in the San Francisco Bay Area, requiring most residents to leave their homes only for food, medicine or exercise for three weeks, is the most sweeping lockdown in the US.
Miguel Aguirre, his wife and two children were the only people on a normally bustling street near City Hall. Aguirre said he and his wife, janitors at a Boys and Girls Club, heard about the order on TV but showed up to work anyway because they need the money. His supervisor texted him to leave.
“If we don't work, we don't eat,” said Aguirre, who brought his two daughters along because schools were closed. He had already lost his second job, at a hotel, when tourism conferences began cancelling a month ago.