As virus cases surge, nations set aside differences to help

Russia sent medical equipment and masks to the United States. Cuba sent doctors to France. Turkey dispatched masks, hazmat suits, goggles, and disinfectants to Italy and Spain. Rich nations staggering to meet health care demands are welcoming help from less wealthy ones. 

Luca Bruno/AP
A worker sanitizes Duomo square in Milan, Italy, March 31, 2020. The pressure is easing on hard-hit Italian cities like Bergamo and Brescia as the rate of new infections slows, but available health care still lags behind demand.

European nations facing extraordinary demand for hospital intensive-care beds are putting up makeshift hospitals, unsure whether they will find enough healthy medical staff to run them. London is just days from unveiling a 4,000-bed temporary hospital built in a huge convention center to take non-critical patients so British hospitals can stay ahead of an expected surge.

In a remarkable turnaround, rich economies where virus cases have exploded are welcoming help from less wealthy ones. Russia sent medical equipment and masks to the United States. Cuba sent doctors to France. Turkey dispatched masks, hazmat suits, goggles, and disinfectants to Italy and Spain.

Over the weekend, the U.S. Coast Guard issued new rules directing all cruise ships to remain at sea where they may be sequestered "indefinitely" during the outbreak and be prepared to send any severely ill passengers to the countries where the vessels are registered.

Worldwide, more than 870,000 people have been infected and over 43,000 have died, according to a tally kept by Johns Hopkins University. Everywhere, the real figures are believed to be much higher because of testing shortages, differences in counting the dead, and large numbers of mild cases that have gone unreported.

Even as the virus has slowed its growth in overwhelmed Italy and in China, where it first emerged, hospitals in Spain and France are reaching their breaking points, and the U.S. and Britain are bracing for waves of ill people.

"It feels like we are in a Third World country. We don't have enough masks, enough protective equipment, and by the end of the week we might be in need of more medication too," said Paris emergency worker Christophe Prudhomme.

Spain, which hit a record Wednesday of deaths in one day, has boosted its hospital beds by 20%. Hotspots in Madrid and Catalonia have almost tripled their ICU capacity. Dozens of hotels across Spain have been turned into recovery rooms, and authorities are building field hospitals in sports centers, libraries, and exhibition halls.

The pressure is easing on hard-hit Italian cities like Bergamo and Brescia as the rate of new infections slows. With over 12,400 dead so far, Italy has the most coronavirus deaths of any nation.

The strain facing some of the world's best health care systems has been aggravated by hospital budget cuts over the past decade in Italy, Spain, France, and Britain. They have called in medical students, retired doctors, and even laid-off flight attendants with first aid certification to help fight the virus, although all need re-training.

The medical staffing shortage has been exacerbated by the high numbers of infected personnel. In Italy alone, nearly 10,000 medical workers have been infected and more than 60 doctors have died.

One possible reason Germany is in better shape than other European countries is its high proportion of ICU beds, at 33.9 per 100,000 people compared to 8.6 in Italy. Germany has only 775 virus deaths.

China, where the outbreak began late last year, on Wednesday reported just 36 new COVID-19 cases. But China's numbers are being questioned.  Bloomberg reports: "China has concealed the extent of the coronavirus outbreak in its country, under-reporting both total cases and deaths it’s suffered from the disease, the U.S. intelligence community concluded in a classified report to the White House, according to three U.S. officials." 

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writers around the world contributed including Joseph Wilson in Barcelona; Danica Kirka and Jill Lawless in London; Frank Jordans in Berlin; Karen Matthews in New York; and Nick Perry in Wellington, New Zealand.

Editor’s note: As a public service, the Monitor has removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

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