Coronavirus death toll in Spain overtakes China

Ashifa Kassam in Madrid
Photograph: Bernat Armangué/AP

Spain’s coronavirus death toll has overtaken China’s, climbing to 3,434, while a slowdown in the rate of new infections in Italy has raised hopes that the peak of its outbreak could be within sight.

After more than a week in lockdown in Spain, another 738 people died over 24 hours, but officials expressed hope that the daily rise in deaths might be stabilising. “If we are not already at the peak, we are very close,” said Fernando Simón, the head of Spain’s health emergency centre.

Among the country’s newest confirmed cases is the deputy prime minister, Carmen Calvo, who was taken to hospital on Sunday with a respiratory infection. The latest to die include two doctors who had been on the frontlines of the pandemic.

Italy remains the centre of the crisis with a total of 7,503 deaths – more than double the number documented in China. The death toll in Italy rose by 683 on Wednesday, a decline in the daily rate following a spike the day before. The rate of new infections slowed for a fourth consecutive day, rising by 3,491 compared with 3,612 on Tuesday.

“This is an extremely positive factor,” said Ranieri Guerra, from the World Health Organization, of the slowing infection rate. “In some regions we are close to the falling point of the curve and therefore probably the peak could be reached this week and then fall,” he told Radio Capital. “I believe that this week and the first days of the next will be crucial.”

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In both Spain and Italy – as in the UK – concern has grown about healthcare workers in overcrowded hospitals who have scant supplies of protective gear such as masks and gloves.

Italy’s national federation of doctors said 29 doctors had now been killed by the virus, including four on Wednesday. More than 5,000 health workers across Italy have tested positive, the Anaao Assomed union told the Ansa news agency.

Police officers check people coming back from a shopping trip in the village of Herculaneum, Italy. Photograph: Ciro de Luca/Reuters

In Spain, healthcare workers account for nearly 14% of the country’s 47,610 cases, officials say. Amid reports of overwhelmed emergency wards, doctors and nurses have complained of a lack of basic protective equipment that has forced them to ration crucial supplies and craft protective shields out of plastic bags.

Two unions representing doctors have filed lawsuits aimed at forcing the regional health authority and the Spanish government to deliver scrubs, masks and goggles to hospitals and other health centres. Nato said on Tuesday that Spain had asked it for medical supplies, requesting items including 450,000 respirators, 500,000 testing kits and 1.5m surgical masks.

Germany and France have faced criticism over export bans on products such as masks and goggles. The EU is expected to sign off on Thursday on a “more ambitious and wide-ranging crisis management system” that will include a plea for the lifting of such bans.

Around the world, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases has climbed to more than 423,000. Among the latest to test positive is Prince Charles, who is showing mild symptoms, according to a spokesperson for Clarence House.

The true number of global cases is likely to be much higher. Officials in Spanish regions such as Madrid and Catalonia initially dealt with a shortage of testing resources by asking people with mild symptoms to simply self-isolate, while Italy’s top coronavirus response official, Angelo Borrelli, has suggested the real number of infections there is probably 10 times higher than the official count.

An almost empty street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York. Photograph: Bryan R Smith/AFP via Getty Images

The accelerating pandemic – it took 67 days to reach the first 100,000 cases and four days to hit the latest 100,000, according to the WHO – has led to an estimated 1.7 billion people being ordered to remain at home around the world.

In the US, where infections have passed the 55,000 mark and more than 800 people have died, legislators reached a deal on a $2tn (£1.85tn) rescue package on Wednesday, the biggest bailout in US history.

In New York – home to nearly half of the confirmed cases in the US – the shuttering of bars, restaurants, clubs and gyms may have helped slow the rate of hospitalisation in recent days, the state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, said on Wednesday.

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“Now that is almost too good to be true ... This is a very good sign and a positive sign, again not 100% sure it holds, or it’s accurate but the arrows are headed in the right direction,” Cuomo told a daily news conference.

In China, life began returning to normal on Wednesday as restrictions on movement, construction and transport were lifted after two months of lockdown in Hubei province, where the outbreak began. The lockdown in Hubei’s capital, Wuhan, will be lifted on 8 April.

The lockdown measures appear to have successfully curbed the number of infections, according to a report from Imperial College London.

In other developments:

  • The first death was reported in the occupied West Bank, of a Palestinian woman in her 60s.

  • Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, postponed a public vote in April on a constitutional change that would allow him to stay in power beyond 2024.

  • Closures aimed at containing the coronavirus pandemic are preventing aid from reaching 300,000 people in conflict zones across the Middle East, the Norwegian Refugee Council said.

  • Libya announced its first coronavirus case, as experts warned the conflict between two groups for control of the country could make containing the spread of the virus very challenging.

  • South Africa’s police minister said two people had been charged with attempted murder for refusing to obey orders to self-isolate.

Reporting team: Hannah Ellis-Petersen in Delhi, David Smith in Washington, Jennifer Rankin in Brussels, Patrick Wintour and Sarah Boseley in London, Rory Carroll in Dublin, Helen Davidson in Sydney, and Kim Willsher in Paris.