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A billboard over a deserted road advises to limit travels in Rome, Saturday, March 14, 2020. A sweeping lockdown is in place in Italy and other European countries to try to slow down the spread of coronavirus epidemic.Roberto Monaldo/The Associated Press

Spain joined Italy in national lockdown, raising the total of Europeans in quarantine to more than 100 million, with several other countries preparing similar isolation measures to try to slow the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus from its northern Italian epicentre.

On the weekend, as Italian COVID-19 cases continued to rise at alarming rates, a surge in Spanish COVID-19 infections and deaths forced the government to adopt an Italian-style quarantine that left almost all stores closed. Euronews reported that some near-death Italian patients who were still conscious used iPads to make video calls to family and friends, who are not allowed to visit them in the emergency wards.

Since late February, more COVID-19 cases have been reported outside China than inside it. The World Health Organization is now calling Europe the epicentre of the outbreak and noted that it is recording more cases than China did at the peak of the Chinese outbreak earlier his year.

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On Monday, European Union finance ministers were set to discuss by video conference how to reach a co-ordinated economic response to the coronavirus pandemic.

By Sunday night, global infections had reached more than 165,000 with at least 6,300 fatalities. Recoveries had reached almost 77,000.

On Sunday, Spain, the hardest-hit European country, after Italy, recorded more than 1,400 new cases in 24 hours, raising the total number of infections to 7,798; and it saw 96 new deaths, bringing the total number of fatalities to 292. Spanish police on the weekend were using speaker-equipped drones to encourage people to clear the streets and remain at home for two weeks unless they needed to buy food and medicine, or make emergency medical visits.

France also closed most shops, including cafés, restaurants and cinemas, but stopped short of a full quarantine. On Sunday, voting in local elections in France went ahead, although turnout was low.

Britain and Austria also announced emergency measures.

On Sunday, Germany, which had 5,813 cases and 11 deaths by the end of the weekend, said it would largely close its borders with France, Switzerland and Austria – an unimaginable scenario only a week or two ago. Under the Schengen Agreement, most European Union countries are borderless.

Britain avoided Italian-style quarantine measures but put manufacturers on “war footing” as its caseload soared. On Sunday evening, the British government recorded 1,372 COVID-19 infections and 35 deaths, up by 14 new fatalities from Saturday.

According to several British media reports, Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday will ask carmakers and other manufacturers to produce emergency medical supplies, especially ventilators, whose use Italian doctors have learned can make the difference between life and death among critical patients.

Some Italian intensive-care doctors on the weekend urged countries that had not been hard hit yet by COVID-19 to prepare their hospitals for a rush of patients, and to implement tight containment measures to try to slow arrivals into emergency and isolation wards.

In a video interview with the Journal of the American Medical Association, Maurizio Cecconi, director of the department of anesthesia and intensive care at Milan’s Humanitas Research Hospital, said comparing COVID-19 to seasonal influenza was spurious. “This is not a normal flu; this is serious,” he said. “Get ready. … If you don’t take down the transmission of your virus, the capacity of your [health-care] system will be overwhelmed.”

Italy was the first country outside of China to impose draconian quarantine measures, initially in almost a dozen towns near Milan, then across the northern part of the country, which remains Europe’s COVID-19 hotspot. The quarantine was extended to the whole country last Tuesday by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.

In spite of the lockdown, the Italian caseload continues to surge. On Sunday night, Italy had reported 24,747 COVID-19 cases, up 3,590, and 1,809 deaths, up 368, over the previous 24 hours. More than half the Italian cases were in the northern region of Lombardy.

About 10 per cent of the COVID-19 patients were in intensive care, said Italy’s civil protection chief Angelo Borelli

Dr. Cecconi said that northern Italian hospitals are rushing to add intensive-care capacity to their facilities. “We could be on our knees soon if we see more patients coming through,” he said.

The constant inflow of patients in northern Italy – less so in the south – has put hospitals close to breaking point, with doctors resorting to triaging patients based on their age and chances of survival. The National Society of Anesthesiology and Intensive Care has published recommendations for dealing with “exceptional conditions of imbalance between needs and available resources.”

Italy is being flooded with cheap face masks that many doctors are declaring “useless.” High-quality masks are almost impossible to find and Italy does not have the production capacity to provide adequate supplies, Mr. Borelli said.

In France, LVMH, the luxury-goods company that owns Louis Vuitton, said it would make large quantities of hand-gel disinfectant and supply it free to hospitals.

On the weekend, Italians, who are about to enter their second week of tight quarantine, were opening their windows and taking to their balconies to deliver messages of solidarity and hope, and to break the tension. At 6 p.m. every day, musical Italians have been singing the national anthem, or Volare. Some couples danced on their balconies as the music played.

The Italian quarantine is to end on March 25, although it may be extended unless the infection rate shows a sharp fall, as it has in China, which has recorded only a few dozen new COVID-19 cases in recent days.

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