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Fresh restrictions and border closures announced in bid to slow virus spread

Europe is currently on the front line in the fight against Covid-19.

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An empty avenue is in Barcelona, as Spain’s government announced it was placing tight restrictions on movements to fight the sharp rise in coronavirus infections (Joan Mateu/AP)

An empty avenue is in Barcelona, as Spain’s government announced it was placing tight restrictions on movements to fight the sharp rise in coronavirus infections (Joan Mateu/AP)

An empty avenue is in Barcelona, as Spain’s government announced it was placing tight restrictions on movements to fight the sharp rise in coronavirus infections (Joan Mateu/AP)

A new round of restrictions and border closures was announced in Europe and beyond on Sunday as public life and travel increasingly ground to a halt amid efforts to keep people apart and slow the spread of the new coronavirus.

Spain awoke to the first day of a nationwide quarantine, while Austria’s chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, said his government was limiting people’s movement nationwide.

This came shortly after the country’s Tyrol province followed Italy and Spain, barring people from leaving their homes except for essential errands and work.

Police at a roadblock stop a cars driving into and out of an Austrian village in the province of Tyrol
Police at a roadblock stop cars driving into and out of an Austrian village in the province of Tyrol (Kerstin Joensson/AP)

Europe is currently the main front line in the fight against Covid-19.

Austria has confirmed 800 infections, with Mr Kurz saying – other than for essential errands – people should go out “only alone or with the people with whom (they) live in their apartment”.

Neighbouring Slovenia said it would shut down all public transport starting on Monday and planned to shut all but food shops and pharmacies.

Estonia and Latvia confirmed they would close their borders to foreign nationals, except residents, from Tuesday.

Turkey has put aside quarantine beds for more than 10,000 people returning from pilgrimage to Islam’s holy sites in Saudi Arabia.

Pilgrims waiting next to a bus ahead of being quarantined
Pilgrims wait next to a bus ahead of being quarantined (Tumay Berkin/AP)

Italy, the worst-hit European country with more than 21,000 infections and 1,400 deaths, wound its nearly week-old lockdown still tighter.

The transport ministry banned passengers from taking ferries to the island of Sardinia, and also banned overnight train trips — which many in the worst-affected north had been taking to reach homes and families in the south.

Spain joined Italy on lockdown after the government declared a two-week state of emergency.

In Barcelona, people who ventured out on quiet streets to buy bread at one bakery formed long lines with a metre (about three feet) between each person as recommended by authorities to reduce the risk of contagion.

Police patrolled parks and told people who were not taking their dog on a quick walk to go home.

Catalonian police officers patrol along La Ramblas in Barcelona
Catalonian police officers patrol along La Ramblas in Barcelona (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

A police patrol car cruised Barcelona’s streets slowly a with loudspeaker blasting a recorded message that people should respect the restrictions on movement.

The state of emergency “is necessary to unify our efforts so we can all go in the same direction”, Barcelona mayor Ada Colau said on Sunday.

“If we show solidarity and think about one another, we can get through this,” she said.

“Other countries have, and it is in our hands to give our best answer to this huge challenge.”

For now, the number of cases is still rising steeply, with Spain’s health ministry confirming the country had recorded 288 deaths, up from 136 on Saturday. The number of infections had also risen to 7,753 from 5,700.

Spain’s government said on Saturday that prime minister Pedro Sanchez’s wife had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Begona Gomez and the prime minister were in good health, the government said.

Nearby Morocco has suspended all international flights.

There were tough steps being taken in Southeast Asia too, with soldiers and police sealing the densely populated Philippine capital Manila from most domestic travellers, in one of the region’s most drastic containment measures.

Filipino troops wearing protective masks arrive in Manila to start sealing the capital from most domestic travellers
Filipino troops wearing protective masks arrive in Manila to start sealing the capital from most domestic travellers (Aaron Favila/AP)

In Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, President Joko Widodo asked all people to work, study and worship from home.

Travellers scrambling to return to the US after the Trump administration imposed a wide-ranging ban on people entering from Europe faced waits lasting hours for required medical screenings.

Videos and photos posted on social media showed packed, winding lines of returning travellers.

On Twitter, airports like Dallas/Fort Worth and Chicago O’Hare acknowledged the delays and asked for patience.

In China, where the virus was first detected in December, those arriving on overseas flights were routed to a converted exhibition centre for initial checks before being shuttled off to their homes or other quarantine locations.

But it was clear that the centre of gravity in the crisis has shifted towards Europe and North America.

The virus has infected more than 156,000 people worldwide and killed over 5,800.

China, Italy, Iran, South Korea and Spain are the countries with the most cases.

For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough.

For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover in a matter of weeks.

Even as social life has largely been halted — the German capital, Berlin, closed bars, cinemas and other facilities on Saturday evening, for example — some attempts at keeping up public life persist.

France, which has reported 4,500 cases and 91 deaths, went ahead on Sunday with nationwide elections to choose mayors and other local leaders despite a crackdown on public gatherings.

French president Emmanuel Macron casts his ballot in the mayoral elections in Le Touquet in northern France
French president Emmanuel Macron casts his ballot in the mayoral elections in Le Touquet in northern France (Pascal Rossignol/Pool via AP)

The government ordered unprecedented sanitary measures at polling stations.

Organisers were under orders to allow a one-metre (about three-foot) gap between people in lines, and to provide soap or hydro-alcoholic gel and disinfectant wipes for voting machines. Voters were told to bring their own pens to sign the voting register.

The state of Bavaria in neighbouring Germany, which had reported nearly 3,800 cases and eight deaths nationwide as of Saturday, also went ahead with municipal elections.

Local officials said more people had filed postal ballots than five years before, while election workers used precautions such as protective gloves.

The increasing restrictions weighed on Sunday worship in Spain, where orders stipulated that a one-metre gap be kept between parishioners.

At least one church in Madrid streamed midday Mass online. The faithful were allowed in the main chapel to pray but given instructions to keep apart. Holy water bowls had been emptied, and a room for confession was prepared because ordinary confessionals would have put the priest and the faithful too close.

At the Vatican, Pope Francis delivered his noon remarks and spoken blessing from inside the Apostolic Library instead of from a window overlooking St. Peter’s Square for the second Sunday running.

Pope Francis delivers his blessing from a window overlooking St Peter’s Square at the Vatican
Pope Francis waves from a window overlooking St Peter’s Square at the Vatican (Alessandra Tarantino/AP)

He praised people who might risk contagion to help the poor and homeless even as fears of the virus prompt ever more countries to restrict everyday life.

The Vatican said it would close all Holy Week ceremonies to the public with the start of Palm Sunday on April 5.

It said that until April 12, when Easter Sunday was celebrated this year, all the general audiences on Wednesday and the Pope’s Sunday noon prayer would be streamed by the Vatican.

In the Middle East, Muslim authorities announced that Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site, would be closed indefinitely due to concerns about the outbreak, with prayers continuing to be held on the sprawling esplanade outside.

Dalia Samhouri, a regional official with the World Health Organisation, said both Iran and Egypt, two of the most populous countries in the Middle East, were likely to be under-reporting cases because infected people could still show no visible symptoms.

Iran said it had nearly 14,000 virus cases and 724 deaths, while Egypt has reported 110 cases, including two fatalities.

“We can easily say that the current figures are an underestimation of the actual figures,” the official said.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial on serious corruption charges, which was supposed to begin this week, was postponed for two months because of restrictions on public gatherings.

The US has seen 60 deaths and more than 2,100 cases.

In hard-hit Washington state, officials said the disease is straining the supply of protective gear available to medical providers despite shipments from the federal government.

President Donald Trump tested negative for the new coronavirus, the American leader’s personal physician said on Saturday.

PA