Wuhan ends 76-day lockdown; emotional toll of virus surges

After 76 days in lockdown, the Chinese city at the heart of the global pandemic reopened Wednesday and tens of thousands immediately hopped on trains and planes to leave. Elsewhere, the economic, political and psychological toll of fighting the virus grew increasingly clear and more difficult to bear.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spent a second night in intensive care, the first major world leader confirmed to have COVID-19. His condition was stable, the 55-year-old leader was receiving oxygen but was not on a ventilator, officials said.

Across the Atlantic, New York endured one of its darkest days so far, with the virus death toll surging past 4,000, hundreds more than the number killed on 9/11. New York state recorded 731 new coronavirus deaths on Tuesday, its biggest one-day jump yet, for a statewide toll of nearly 5,500.

“Behind every one of those numbers is an individual. There’s a family, there’s a mother, there’s a father, there’s a sister, there’s a brother. So a lot of pain again today,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.

More pain was also seen on the economic front. Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, could contract by a record 25% this quarter, the highest since gross domestic product began to be tracked in 1955. The dismal prediction by economists Naohiko Baba and Yuriko Tanaka said exports were expected to dive 60% in the April-June period.

The Bank of France said the French economy has entered recession with an estimated 6% drop in the first quarter compared to the previous three months, amid the nation’s coronavirus lockdown.

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European governments have been scrambling to put together hundreds of billions of euros to save lives and prevent bankruptcies. The countries worst hit by the virus so far are also those that can least afford the costs, like Italy and Spain. But they disagree over how to tackle the challenge.

The finance ministers of countries that use the shared euro currency failed Wednesday to agree on how to help their nations through the crisis, breaking off after marathon all-night talks. They will resume Thursday.

With European health workers toiling round the clock for weeks in a desperate bid to save lives, the psychological toll was becoming unbearable. Six weeks into Italy’s outbreak, two nurses have already killed themselves and more than 70 doctors and 20 nurses have died from the virus. Hospitals are making therapists available to help staff cope with the emotional toll of seeing so much death.

Dr. Luis Díaz Izquierdo, from the emergency ward in a suburban Madrid hospital, said the sense of helplessness was crushing.

“No matter what we did, they go, they pass away,” he said.

In Spain, nurse Diego Alonso said he and other colleagues have been using tranquilizers to cope. His fears are especially acute since his wife is due to give birth soon.

“The psychological stress from this time is going to be difficult to forget. It has just been too much,” he said.

In Wuhan, the Chinese city of 11 million where the global pandemic began, residents waved flags and the city staged a light show with skyscrapers and bridges radiating images of health workers aiding patients.

Restrictions in the city where most of China’s more than 82,000 virus cases and over 3,300 deaths were reported have been gradually eased in recent weeks as new cases steadily declined.

“I haven’t been outside for more than 70 days,” said an emotional Tong Zhengkun. “Being indoors for so long drove me crazy.”

Some in Congress are calling for China to be held accountable for initially covering up the outbreak, an accusation Beijing strongly denies despite growing evidence.

In Washington, President Donald Trump threatened to freeze U.S. funding to the World Health Organization, saying the international group had “missed the call” on the pandemic. He suggesting that the U.N. agency had gone along with Beijing’s efforts months ago to minimize the severity of the outbreak.

WHO has praised China for its transparency on the virus despite wide skepticism about its virus numbers from outside experts. China reported no new infections Wednesday.

China responded to the Trump tirade that the struggle against the global pandemic should provide a “platform for China-U.S. cooperation,” despite sniping between the sides over blame and responsibility.

In Europe, Britain and France appeared to be at different stages of the coronavirus crisis than Italy, which has reported new infections and virus deaths declining daily.

Deaths in Britain reached nearly 6,200 after a one-day increase of 786, its highest figure yet, while in France, the number of dead climbed to more than 10,300.

“We are in the epidemic’s ascendant stage,” said Jerome Salomon, France’s national health director. “We have not yet reached the peak.”

In Italy, the hardest-hit country overall with over 17,000 virus deaths, authorities looked ahead with apprehension at the upcoming Easter weekend and urged Italians not to lower their guard even as a national lockdown enters its fifth week.

“We are not at few steps from the exit of the emergency, we are not close to that hypothetical X hour that will quickly bring us back to the previous situation,” said Italian virus commissioner Domenico Arcuri. “Nothing could be more wrong.”

Across the U.S., the death toll topped 12,900, with nearly 400,000 confirmed infections. Some of the deadliest hot spots were Detroit, New Orleans and the New York metropolitan area.

Wisconsin voters forced to choose between health, democracy

In Wisconsin, after a legal battle that reached the Supreme Court, voters were asked to ignore a stay-at-home order to participate in its presidential primary. Thousands were forced to congregate for hours in long lines Tuesday with no protective gear. Thousands more stayed home, unwilling to risk their health and unable to be counted because requested absentee ballots never arrived.

Voters reported being afraid, angry and embarrassed by the state’s unwillingness to postpone the presidential primary as more than a dozen other states have already done.

“They could have delayed the election with no problem,” said voter Michael Claus, 66. “They decided if they can suppress the vote in Milwaukee and Madison, where you have a large minority presence, you can get people elected you want elected. And that’s sad.”

Worldwide, about 1.4 million people have been confirmed infected and almost 83,000 have died, according to Johns Hopkins University. The true numbers are almost certainly much higher, because of limited testing, different rules for counting the dead and deliberate underreporting by some governments.

For most people, the virus causes mild to moderate symptoms such as fever and cough. But for some, especially older adults and the infirm, it can cause pneumonia and death. Over 307,000 people have recovered.

In Japan, Albert Camus’ novel “The Plague” has gone into seven extra printings since February and was flying off the shelves. One bookstore chain limited buyers to one book each to curtail literary hoarding.

The novel, first published in French in 1947, portrays the dilemma of human existence as a North African city gets overtaken by the plague.