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Number of coronavirus-related deaths in Italy overtakes China total

Italy, with a population of 60 million, has recorded at least 3,405 deaths.

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Italy has overtaken China as the country with the most coronavirus-related deaths (Ben Birchall/PA)

Italy has overtaken China as the country with the most coronavirus-related deaths (Ben Birchall/PA)

Italy has overtaken China as the country with the most coronavirus-related deaths (Ben Birchall/PA)

Italy has become the country with the most coronavirus-related deaths, surpassing China.

The death toll in Italy was a stark illustration of how the outbreak has pivoted towards Europe and the United States.

Italy, with a population of 60 million, has recorded at least 3,405 deaths, or roughly 150 more than in China — a country with a population that is over 20 times larger.

Italy reached the bleak milestone the same day that Wuhan, the Chinese city where the coronavirus first emerged three months ago, recorded no new infections, a sign that the communist country’s draconian lockdowns were a powerful method to stop the spread of the virus.

On Thursday, a visiting Chinese Red Cross team criticised Italians’ failure to properly quarantine themselves and take the national lockdown seriously.

Meanwhile, the damage to the world’s largest economy kept piling up, with unemployment claims surging in the United States, while the virus appeared to be opening an alarming new front in Africa, where in less than three weeks it has spread to 35 countries.

The epidemic has also now reached at least one European head of state, 62-year-old Prince Albert II of the tiny principality of Monaco. The palace announced that he tested positive for the virus but was continuing to work from his office and was being treated by doctors from Princess Grace Hospital, named after his American actress mother.

In the US, Congress rushed to pass a one trillion dollar emergency package to shore up the sinking economy and help households pull through the crisis.

The worldwide death toll crept towards 10,000 as the total number of infections topped 220,000, including nearly 85,000 people who have recovered.

Global cases of coronavirus
(PA Graphics)

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe pleaded with people to keep their distance from one another to avoid spreading the virus, even as the crisis pushed them to seek comfort.

“When you love someone, you should avoid taking them in your arms,” he said in parliament. “It’s counter-intuitive, and it’s painful. The psychological consequences, the way we are living, are very disturbing — but it’s what we must do.”

The American death toll rose to 160, primarily elderly people.

Health authorities have cited a variety of reasons for Italy’s high toll, key among them its large population of elderly people, who are particularly susceptible to serious complications from the virus, though severe cases have also been seen in younger patients. Italy has the world’s second-oldest population, and the vast majority of its dead — 87% — were over 70.

Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit, a virologist at Germany’s Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine, said Italy’s high death rate could be explained in part by the almost total breakdown of the health system in some areas.

“That’s what happens when the health system collapses,” he said.

On a visit to the northern city of Milan, the head of a Chinese Red Cross delegation helping advise Italy said he was shocked to see so many people walking around, using public transportation and eating out.

Sun Shuopeng said Wuhan saw infections peak only after a month of a strictly enforced lockdown.

“Right now we need to stop all economic activity and we need to stop the mobility of people,” he said. “All people should be staying at home in quarantine.”

Aside from the elderly and the sick, most people have mild or moderate symptoms, like a fever or cough, and most recover in a matter of weeks.

Spain has been the hardest-hit European country after Italy, and in Madrid a four-star hotel began operating as a makeshift hospital for coronavirus patients.

The director of the group that runs the Ayre GH Colon hotel tweeted: “365 rooms more to help win the war.”

The Madrid Hotel Business Association said it has placed 40 hotels with room for 9,000 people at the service of the Madrid region, which has near half of Spain’s 17,000 or so cases.

Thursday marked the first time since January 20 that Wuhan showed no new locally transmitted cases, a rare glimmer of hope and perhaps a lesson in the strict measures needed to contain the virus.

Wuhan, which has been under a strict lockdown since January, once was the place where thousands lay sick or dying in hurriedly constructed hospitals. But Chinese authorities said all 34 new cases recorded over the previous day had come from abroad.

“Today, we have seen the dawn after so many days of hard effort,” said Jiao Yahui, a senior inspector at the National Health Commission.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that the virus is spreading quickly in Africa — an especially alarming development, given the poor state of healthcare in many of its countries.

“About 10 days ago we had about five countries” with the virus, said the WHO’s Africa chief, Dr Matshidiso Moeti.

Now 35 of Africa’s 54 countries have cases, with the total close to 650. It is an “extremely rapid evolution,” she said. The first sub-Saharan Africa case was announced on February 28.

Meanwhile, Michel Barnier, the European Union’s chief negotiator for the future relationship with Britain after Brexit, said he has been infected with the virus.

Mr Barnier tweeted that he is doing well and is in good spirits.

“I am following all the necessary instructions, as is my team,” Mr Barnier said. “For all those affected already, and for all those currently in isolation, we will get through this together.”

European stock markets were up only slightly after losses in Asia despite a massive stimulus package announced overnight by the European Central Bank.

Wall Street was calm in early trading by the standards of the past few days, when traders — weighing the increasing likelihood of a recession against the huge economic support pledged by global authorities — have caused wild swings.

PA