As cases jump, South Africa prepares for lockdown; Vatican pressured to let more work from home

The Latest on the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected more than 383,000 people and killed over 16,500. The COVID-19 illness causes mild or moderate symptoms in most people, but severe symptoms are more likely in the elderly or those with existing health problems. More than 101,000 people have recovered so far, mostly in China.

TOP OF THE HOUR:

— The Vatican is under pressure to let more employees work from home.

— Sri Lankan government imposes indefinite curfew in three districts.

— Czech Republic reports second death, says it received an experimental antiviral drug.

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VATICAN CITY — The Vatican is under pressure to let more of its employees work from home after several offices remained open even after Italy shut down all nonessential industry in a bid to contain the coronavirus.

Vatican employees in three different offices expressed alarm Tuesday that superiors had adopted different policies about working from home, with no uniformity among them. The concern has been heightened because many Vatican employees live in priestly residences and eat together in communal dining rooms. Already, members of two separate religious orders in Rome tested positive for the virus, evidence that the close quarters of religious communities can spread the virus.

The Vatican has adopted some shutdown measures, but has lagged behind the rest of Italy, which is the European epicenter of the outbreak.

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COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lankan government on Tuesday imposed an indefinite curfew in three districts that includes the capital Colombo as a part of it’s stringent measures being taken to contain the spreading of the virus as the number of confirmed cases rose to 97.

A government statement says these three districts have been identified as “high risk” areas and the highest number of positive cases are reported from these districts.

Accordingly, the indefinite curfew was imposed in Colombo, Gampaha and Kalutara districts. These three districts have been under a three-day curfew since Friday. Curfew in these districts was lifted only for eight hours on Tuesday to allow people to purchase food and other essentials.

The island is divided into 25 districts for administrative purposes. Curfew prevails in the other 22 districts, but the government previously said curfew in those districts will be lifted on Friday for a few hours.

The government on Monday banned nonessential travel among the districts.

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PRAGUE — The Czech Republic has registered its second death caused by the coronavirus.

Health Minister Adam Vojtech said Tuesday the 45-year-old patient died in hospital in eastern town of Havirov. Vojtech said the man was suffering from an unspecified cancer at an advanced stage and the coronavirus worsened his condition.

Several other hospitalized people with COVID-19 are in critical condition in the Czech Republic.

Meanwhile, Vojtech said the country received remdesivir, an experimental antiviral drug from U.S. company Gilead Sciences to treat the first patient who is in critical condition at a Prague clinic.

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JOHANNESBURG — South Africa’s coronavirus cases have leapt again to 554. It’s the most of any country in Africa. Its 57 million people are rushing to prepare for a three-week lockdown that begins Thursday.

Across Africa, 43 of its 54 countries now have cases, with the total at 1,788. Thirteen countries have reported 58 deaths.

Elsewhere in Africa, Nigeria’s ban on international flights is beginning. And, Ethiopia’s government has issued a proposal to the G20 global forum for economic cooperation ahead of its summit, saying “COVID-19 poses an existential threat to the economies of African countries.”

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LONDON — Business activity in Europe has fallen at the sharpest pace on record, according to a survey that was started in 1998.

The purchasing managers’ index, a gauge of business executives’ outlook on the economy, fell to 31.4 points in March for the 19-country eurozone, from 51.6 in February, as governments put limits on business activity to contain the virus outbreak.

The index is at the lowest since the survey was started and is below the trough registered during the global financial crisis in 2009. The 50-point level separates economic growth from contraction.

The index, which is compiled by research firm IHS Markit, shows the biggest hit to the services sector, particular tourism and restaurants. Companies in this sector were cutting jobs at the fastest pace since 2009.

Chris Williamson, chief business economist at IHS Markit, says the survey suggests a quarterly economic contraction of 2%, or over 8% in annualized terms, though that forecast is likely to worsen.

“Business sentiment about the year ahead has plunged to the gloomiest on record, suggesting policymakers’ efforts to date have failed to brighten the darkening picture,” he said.

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BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — The new government in Slovakia is planning to tighten restrictive measures in efforts to contain the outbreak of the coronavirus.

Prime Minister Igor Matovic said Tuesday it will be mandatory for all citizens to wear face masks in all public spaces. People should also keep a distance of 2 meters (6 feet) between one another.

All essential retail businesses that still can be opened, such as food stores and pharmacies, will be closed on Sundays to give employees time to rest.

From the end of March, the temperature of all people entering stores or hospitals will be measured.

Only the pensioners will be allowed to do the shopping from 9 a.m. till 12 p.m. Monday to Saturday.

The government is planning to acquire 200,000 test kits to increase the testing on the coronavirus. Slovakia has reported 204 people infected.

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MADRID — Madrid’s ice-skating rink is now being used as a makeshift morgue given the rapid increase in deaths in the Spanish capital owing to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Security forces guarded the outside of the Palacio de Hielo complex on Madrid’s north-eastern outskirts Tuesday as funeral service vans arrived and entered the building underground car park.

Madrid city authorities took up the rink’s offer to use the 1,800 square-meter (2,153 square-yard) center after the city’s municipal funeral service said it could take no more coronavirus bodies until it restocked with protective equipment and material.

Madrid is one of the hardest hit of Spain’s 17 regions with some 1,300 deaths, approximately half the national total.

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BANGKOK — The Southeast Asian nation of Laos has confirmed its first two cases of COVID-19.

The state news agency KPL reported on its website that Deputy Health Phouthone Meuangpak announced the two cases at a Tuesday press conference in the capital city Vientiane, where both patients were hospitalized.

Laos is the last country in Southeast Asia to report any coronavirus cases. Myanmar reported its first two cases on Monday night and Timor Leste confirmed its first case on Saturday.

KPL said a 36-year-old female who served as a guide early this month for visitors from Europe is one patient, and the other is a 28-year-old male staff member of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Vientiane who is thought to have contracted the virus while attending a workshop in Bangkok, the capital of neighboring Thailand.

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MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine Congress on Tuesday approved a bill declaring a national emergency in the country and authorizing the president to launch a massive aid program for 18 million families and tap private hospitals and ships in fighting the coronavirus outbreak.

President Rodrigo Duterte can realign huge budgets of the executive department under the proposed legislation, which will also punish officials who disobey quarantine orders and people spreading “false information” about the COVID-19 disease, legislators said. The law will last for three months but can be extended by Congress.

The Senate and the House of Representatives, which are dominated by Duterte’s allies, separately held emergency sessions Monday and worked beyond midnight to deliberate on the bill, with the majority of the lawmakers participating online as a health precaution. Duterte is expected to sign the bill into law soon.

Duterte has locked down the main northern island of Luzon, home to more than 50 million people, by restricting travel to and from the region, where the capital Manila lies. Most residents have been ordered to stay home and work and classes have been suspended under the monthlong containment.

Opposition groups have feared Duterte’s extra powers could lead to abuse and called on the government to provide more protective suits for health workers, “safety nets” for the poor and considerably more tests for the virus.

Philippine officials reported Tuesday a total of 552 COVID-19 cases in the country, with 35 deaths.

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LONDON — Confusion rippled through Britain on the first morning after Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered a three-week halt to all nonessential activity to fight the spread of the new coronavirus.

The government has told most stores to close, banned gatherings of three or more people and said everyone apart from essential workers should leave home only to buy food and medicines or to exercise.

But photos showed crowded trains on some London subway lines Tuesday, amid confusion about who is still allowed to go to work.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan tweeted: “I cannot say this more strongly: we must stop all non-essential use of public transport now. Employers: please support your staff to work from home unless it’s absolutely necessary. Ignoring these rules means more lives lost.”

The government says police will have powers break up illegal gatherings and fine people who flout the rules. But some expressed doubts about whether the lockdown could be enforced.

“There is no way really that the police can enforce this using powers. It has got to be because the public hugely support it,” Peter Fahy, former chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, told the BBC.

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JAKARTA, Indonesia — Indonesia reported its biggest daily jump of 107 new COVID-19 cases to bring the country’s total to 686 on Tuesday, as some 125,000 rapid test kits have been distributed across the archipelago nation. The government also reported 55 deaths from the coronavirus.

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HELSINKI — Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish president, UN diplomat and recipient of the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize, has tested positive with the coronavirus.

The office of the Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said Tuesday Ahtisaari, 82, was confirmed with the new coronavirus on Monday and he was doing fine “under the circumstances.”

No details were provided of how Ahtisaari became infected, but his wife was confirmed positive with coronavirus on Saturday.

Ahtisaari served as the Finnish head of state for one six-year term from 1994 until 2000.

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BANGKOK — Thailand’s prime minister says his government has agreed to declare a state of emergency to implement stricter measures to control the coronavirus outbreak.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said his Cabinet agreed Tuesday at its weekly meeting to put a one-month state of emergency into effect on Thursday. It will give the government enforcement powers not normally available to it.

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NEW DELHI — Indian authorities have cleared a demonstration site that has been continuously occupied by Muslim women since December to protest a new citizenship law that fast-tracks naturalization for some foreign migrants from neighboring countries but not Muslims.

Authorities cleared Shaheen Bagh early Tuesday amid a citywide stay-at-home order imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Indian health officials say there are 446 active cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and seven people have died from it. Thirty-six people have recovered.

More than 200 million of India’s 1.3 billion people have been on lockdown since Monday, including the metro areas of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Chennai.

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BEIJING — Chinese authorities are lifting the tight lockdown of Hubei province that was imposed to halt the spread of the new coronavirus.

People who are cleared to do so will be able to leave the province after midnight Tuesday.

The city of Wuhan, where the outbreak started in late December, will remain locked down until April 8. China barred people from leaving or entering Wuhan starting Jan. 23 and expanded it to most of the province in succeeding days.

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CANBERRA, Australia — Prisoners regarded as vulnerable to the new coronavirus and low risk to society in Australia’s most populous state would be eligible for early parole under emergency legislation being introduced to the New South Wales Parliament.

It is unclear how many of the state’s 14,000 prisoners could walk free under the legislation proposed by New South Wales Attorney General Mark Speakman.

The emergency legislation includes a raft of reforms that Speakman said will provide public authorities with the powers they need to respond appropriately to this once-in-a-century crisis.

“The threat posed by COVID-19 is rapidly evolving, and the needs of families, businesses, workers and governments are changing every day,” Speakman said in a statement.

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Source: Associated Press