Spain’s official coronavirus death toll edged higher again yesterday, but questions persisted over the veracity of numbers and the main business lobby warned the economy may slump up to 9% this year.
The health ministry said 757 people died over the past 24 hours, up from 743 the previous day, marking the second daily rise in a row and bringing the total death toll to 14,555 – the world’s second-highest after Italy.
However, Health Minister Salvador Illa said the numbers were still consistent with a slowdown.
The daily percentage pace of increases has roughly halved from the end of March to about 5%.
“There are no good numbers when it comes to deaths ... (but) we are now in the slowdown phase,” he said.
There is increasing suspicion, however, that the official toll is under-estimating a more traumatic reality.
In Madrid, the difference between the number of burials reported in the last two weeks of March and the death toll from the virus was substantially higher than the number who died over the same period in 2018.
That suggested some casualties of the epidemic were not reflected.
Madrid’s Regional High Court said it signed more than 9,000 burial certificates in the last two weeks of March, while only 4,311 deaths were recorded across the whole month in 2018.
The official death toll from coronavirus in Madrid region is 5,586.
The elderly population has been hit particularly hard, with 4,750 fatalities recorded in the past month among Madrid’s population of around 50,000 nursing home residents, according to Ignacio Aguado, deputy regional leader.
Some 3,749 of them had coronavirus-like symptoms but were not tested, he added, meaning they would not be in the official tally.
Overall, cases rose to 146,690 from 140,510 on Tuesday.
Health Emergency Chief Fernando Simon said infections had peaked and should herald an end to the lockdown.
But he added: “We will all have to be much more careful of our actions in this second phase to stop the epidemic resurging.”
At the Sur de Madrid cemetery, Reuters TV footage showed local priest Eduard Batubenga giving a short funeral prayer next to a hearse carrying the body of an elderly woman who died at a nursing home from the Covid-19 disease caused by the coronavirus.
Shortly after, a 37-year-old victim was also buried.
“While you are doing one, the other is waiting in line,” Batubenga said, explaining that daily funerals had shot up to around 40 from 10-15 “on a bad day” before the epidemic.
After the European Union failed to agree on more support for their reeling economies, Spanish officials warned the bloc’s future was in jeopardy if it cannot come up with a joint financial response to combat the new coronavirus.
Spain, along with other southern European countries, has called for joint debt issuance, an idea opposed by the fiscally-frugal north, led by Germany and the Netherlands.
Meanwhile, police in Italy tightened lockdown controls yesterday as cabin fever and a slowing in the coronavirus death toll tempted Italians out in increasing numbers.
One month since the nationwide measures were enforced, Italy’s “Phase 2” plans for easing the lockdown have gripped the nation but also divided it.
There are those who insist the economically crippling shutdown must end and those who fear the deadly disease could rebound.
In the wealthy northern Lombardy region, hardest-hit by a virus that has claimed over 17,500 lives nationwide, traffic was up over 10% compared to a week ago.
Local authorities described that as “alarming”.
Milan’s mayor Beppe Sala said road blocks would be increased.
Officials there fear that the coming Easter weekend might encourage people to flout the ban on leaving the house except to shop for essential food or medicine, or for work.
Experts have warned the lockdown will cause a long and devastating recession, and see millions lose their jobs – despite a €25bn ($27bn) emergency support programme from the government and more to come.
The governor of the Veneto region Luca Zaia said yesterday that he had “a plan ready to help businesses open again, while protecting workers’ safety”.
He was just waiting for a green light from the government, he said.
However, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has repeatedly urged caution.
He cites the scientific community when he insists that the lifting of the lockdown cannot be rushed because it could spark another epidemic in another part of the country.
Italy’s epidemic has peaked.
While the civil protection agency reported 542 new deaths yesterday, with nearly 140,000 people infected, it also said a record 2,099 people had recovered in the previous 24 hours.
The infection rate however was slightly up – 2.8% compared to 2.3% on Tuesday.
The agency’s chief Angelo Borrelli said that showed “we must keep our guard up, and follow the rules to stop the spread”.
“Today’s figures show we’re not yet seeing a clear decline (in the virus),” the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s deputy director Ranieri Guerra told journalists. “We’re on a plateau, which is turning into a downward trajectory quite slowly. This means there is a reservoir of asymptomatic infected people who are continuing to spread the virus.”
He said there were “many” preliminary steps to be taken before easing the lockdown.
Those would include spot tests on the population to determine whether specific employment sectors could be more or less vulnerable to the virus, he said.
Those keen to relaunch the economy have suggested industrial activity could be allowed to start again on April 14.
A broader lifting of restrictions – with social distancing still in place – could be allowed on May 4, they argue.
But the WHO’s Italian government adviser Walter Ricciardi told the Stampa daily “that’s not enough time”.
Social distancing measures might have to be enforced “until the end of the year”, he added.
The head of WHO Europe had the same message in a news conference yesterday.
“Now is not the time to relax measures,” said WHO regional director for Europe, Hans Kluge. “It is the time to once again double and triple our collective efforts to drive towards suppression with the whole support of society.”
Medical personnel also fear that easing the lockdown will undo all the good work it has done so far.
Laura Lupi, a 24-year old Italian nurse, made that point in a statement from the virus frontlines published on the United Nations website.
“We will do everything that is humanly possible to overcome this situation together and we will succeed; we must. Never underestimate us nurses,” she said. “The only thing we ask you is to stay at home for us. We will stay at work for you.”
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