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Friday April 3rd, 2020 8:04PM

India's 1.3 billion locked down as US reaches virus aid deal

By The Associated Press
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NEW DELHI (AP) — The world's largest democracy went under the world's biggest lockdown Wednesday, as India's 1.3 billion people stayed home in a bid to stop the march of the coronavirus pandemic. As infections and deaths rose in the U.S. and Europe, U.S. lawmakers agreed on a massive $2 trillion domestic aid package to help those economically devastated by the outbreak.

India's unprecedented move aimed to keep the virus from spreading and overwhelming its fragile health care system, as it has done in parts of Europe and threatens to do in U.S. hotspots like New York. Everything but essential services like supermarkets were shuttered in India. Normally bustling railway stations in New Delhi were deserted and streets that just hours before were jammed with honking cars were eerily silent.

“Delhi looks like a ghost town,” said Nishank Gupta, a lawyer. “I have never seen the city so quiet before.”

India, where testing has been limited, has only about 450 cases, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi warned that if he didn't act now it could set the country back decades.

In Spain, where hotels have been converted into makeshift hospitals and an ice rink in Madrid is being used as a morgue, the death toll climbed to 2,991 and appeared likely to surpass China's death toll later in the day. In the United States, infections were climbing so quickly that America will soon lead the world in that frightening category as well.

In typically bustling Barcelona, figures walking around with blankets, mattresses or tents punctuated the eerie emptiness. Spain's homeless told The Associated Press they feel more abandoned than ever as everyone else hunkers down at home.

“It is as if there has been a nuclear explosion and (people) are all sheltering in the bunker. Only us, the homeless, are left outside," said 36-year-old Gana, who has been homeless for eight years and uses only one name.

Italy has been the hardest-hit nation in Europe with more than 69,000 infections and 6,800 deaths. Authorities are investigating if a hotly contested Champions League soccer game in Milan in February acted like rocket fuel for the crisis that is overwhelming Italian hospitals and forcing doctors to choose who will receive desperately needed ventilators and who won't.

In Washington, top White House aide Eric Ueland announced the economic agreement in a Capitol hallway shortly after midnight after days of haggling.

Relief that U.S. politicians have reached a deal on economic support pushed world stock markets up on Wednesday. Indexes in Europe and Asia rose a day after the Dow Jones Industrial Average had its best day since 1933.

One of the last issues to be decided concerned $500 billion for guaranteed, subsidized loans to larger industries, including a fight over how generous to be with airlines that have been rocked by a near-shutdown of travel. Hospitals would get significant help as well.

With Americans' lives and livelihoods hanging in the balance, President Donald Trump said he "would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter.” But that statement sharply contradicted health officials' calls for stricter restrictions on public interactions. Scientists and other politicians in the U.S. have warned that the worst is yet to come.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said his state's infections are doubling every three days, threatening to swamp the city's intensive care units much quicker than experts had expected. The state has 26,000 infections and more than 200 deaths.

“One of the forecasters said to me: ‘We were looking at a freight train coming across the country,'" the governor said. “We’re now looking at a bullet train.”

With infections in the U.S. exceeding 55,000 and deaths over 800, health experts say failing to maintain social distancing will balloon infections to the point that the nation's fragmented health care system would be overwhelmed and many more people would die.

More than 425,000 people worldwide have been infected by the virus and almost 19,000 have died, according to Johns Hopkins University. Overall, more than 109,000 have recovered.

There are signs, however, that drastic measures to keep people away from one another can push back the spread of the illness and flatten the infection curve. In China's Hubei province, where the outbreak was first spotted late last year, started lifting its lockdown.

Some train stations and bus services reopened in Hubei on Wednesday and people who passed a health check were allowed to travel for the first time since January. A similar easing in the hard-hit epicenter of Wuhan is planned for April 8.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

It is the latter cases — often requiring ventilators and specialized care — that threaten to overwhelm hospitals. Several countries are already running short of the critical equipment needed to treat patients and keep doctors and nurses safe. Doctors are dying in Italy and Spain says 14% of its infections are health care workers.

Cuomo proposed that the Trump administration send thousands of ventilators to New York City — which needs 30,000 of them, he said — and demanded that Trump use wartime authority to force manufacturers to produce them.

Trump has invoked the Korean War-era Defense Production Act to deter hoarding but has been reluctant to use it to force companies to produce medical supplies. Vice President Mike Pence said 2,000 ventilators have been shipped to New York and 2,000 more will be sent Wednesday.

With no end to the crisis in sight, the International Olympic Committee on Tuesday postponed the 2020 Tokyo Olympics until the summer of 2021 at the latest.

Case edged up in countries with fragile health care systems. Virus cases in South Africa rose to 709 as the country got ready to go on lockdown Friday and Russia reporting 163 new cases overnight for 658 total.

In New Zealand, the government declared an emergency before an unprecedented lockdown begins late Wednesday.

"I have one simple message for New Zealanders today as we head into the next four weeks: Stay at home," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said. "It will break the chain of transmission and it will save lives.”

___

Blake reported from Bangkok. Associated Press reporters around the world contributed to this report.

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