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COVID-19 world update: 6.6 million U.S. jobless claims; alcohol sales banned in Bangkok

Comprehensive digest of coronavirus news items from around the world

The latest on the coronavirus pandemic. These items, assembled from the Associated Press, were posted by Black Press Media at 5:45 a.m., Thursday, April 9.


  • Warnings multiply against Easter holiday travel, gatherings.
  • British PM Boris Johnson `continues to improve’ in ICU.
  • Bangkok to ban sales of alcohol in an effort to curb virus spread.
  • Indonesia bans some from returning to hometowns for end of Ramadan.

Grim landmark in U.S. as 6.6 million seek jobless benefits

WASHINGTON — With a startling 6.6 million people seeking jobless benefits last week, the United States has reached a grim landmark: Roughly one in 10 workers have lost their jobs in just the past three weeks.

The figures collectively constitute the largest and fastest string of job losses in records dating to 1948. They paint a picture of a job market that is quickly unraveling as businesses have shut down across the country because of the coronavirus outbreak. More than 20 million American may lose jobs this month.

The viral outbreak is believed to have erased nearly one-third of the economy’s output in the current quarter. Forty-eight states have closed non-essential businesses. Restaurants, hotels, department stores and small businesses have laid off millions as they struggle to pay bills at a time when their revenue has vanished.

A nation of normally free-spending shoppers and travellers is mainly hunkered down at home, bringing entire gears of the economy to a near-halt. Non-grocery retail business plunged 97% in the last week of March compared with a year earlier, according to Morgan Stanley. The number of airline passengers screened by the Transportation Security Administration has plunged 95% from with a year ago. U.S. hotel revenue has tumbled 80%.

The government-mandated business shutdowns that are meant to defeat the virus have never brought the U.S. to such a sudden and violent standstill. For that reason, economists are struggling to assess the duration and severity of the likely damage.

“We’re just throwing out our textbooks,” said Beth Ann Bovino, chief U.S. economist at S&P Global Ratings.

U.K.: PM remains in intensive care; Britain’s COVID-19 deaths spike

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson remains in intensive care with the coronavirus but is improving and sitting up in bed, a senior government minister said, as the U.K. recorded its biggest spike in COVID-19 deaths to date.

Johnson, the first world leader diagnosed with the disease, has spent two nights in the ICU at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London.

“The latest from the hospital is the prime minister remains in intensive care where his condition is improving,” Sunak said at a news conference. “I can also tell you that he has been sitting up in bed and engaging positively with the clinical team.”

That glimmer of good news came as the number of COVID-19-related deaths in Britain approached the peaks seen in Italy and Spain, the two countries with the greatest number of fatalities.

Britain’s confirmed death toll reached 7,097 on Wednesday, an increase of 938 from 24 hours earlier. Italy recorded a high of 969 deaths on March 27 and Spain 950 deaths on April 2.

The figures may not be directly comparable, however. Not all the U.K. deaths reported each day occurred in the preceding 24 hours, and the total only includes deaths in hospitals.

Booze sales to be banned in Bangkok for 11 days

BANGKOK — Sales of alcoholic beverages will be banned in Thailand’s capital Bangkok for a 11-day period starting Friday as part of the effort to contain the spread of COVID-19 infections. Bars and restaurants were ordered to stop onsite services last month.

Officials said the alcohol ban was necessary because people were flouting social distancing rules by holding drinking parties even as the number of coronavirus cases keeps rising.

Thailand’s annual Songkran Lunar New Year festival falls within the no-sales period. The holiday is usually celebrated by raucous merrymaking and much drinking, which contributes to a spike in traffic deaths.

The official April 13-15 holiday has already been postponed and organized celebrations cancelled because of the crowds they would attract.

At least 11 other provinces have already ordered temporary bans on alcohol sales, including the major tourist destination of Chiang Mai in the north.

Health officials on Thursday confirmed 54 new cases of the disease, bringing the nation’s total to 2,423, with Bangkok accounting for about half. Nationwide, the death toll increased by two to 32.

WHO Chief seeks to rise above U.S. criticism

In a heartfelt plea for unity, the World Health Organization’s chief sought to rise above sharp criticism and threats of funding cuts from U.S. President Donald Trump over the agency’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

The vocal defence from the WHO director-general came a day after Trump blasted the U.N. agency for being “China-centric” and alleging that it had “criticized” his ban of travel from China as the COVID-19 outbreak was spreading from the city of Wuhan.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, an Ethiopian and the WHO’s first African leader, projected humility and minimized his personal role while decrying invective and even racist slurs against him amid the organization’s response to the disease. The new coronavirus has infected more than 1.4 million people and cost over 83,000 lives around the globe.

“Why would I care about being attacked when people are dying?” he said. “I know that I am just an individual. Tedros is just a dot in the whole universe.”

He dodged questions about Trump’s comments, while acknowledging the agency was made up of humans “who make mistakes,” and insisted his key focus was saving lives, not getting caught up in politics.

“No need to use COVID to score political points. You have many other ways to prove yourself,” Tedros said. “If you don’t want many more body bags, then you refrain from politicizing it.”

Japan: Record increase in Tokyo COVID-19 cases

TOKYO — Tokyo reported 181 new coronavirus cases Thursday, setting another record daily increase.

The total exceeds 1,500, with infections accelerating in the Japanese capital under a state of emergency.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike urged companies to more quickly shift to remote working and co-operate with the stay-at-home request.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently declared the state of emergency in Tokyo and six other prefectures, allowing Koike and other leaders to take tougher steps to ensure social distancing. He urged the people to reduce human interactions by as much as 80%, a level that experts say can help control the outbreak in about a month if strictly observed.

Many people still commuted to work Thursday. Japanese companies have been slow to allow their employees to work remotely. Subway operators say their ridership was less than half. But mobile phone carriers showed crowd sizes in downtown Tokyo were only reduced by 30-40%.

On Wednesday, Japan had 4,768 confirmed cases and 96 deaths.

Greece seeks EU help in setting up island isolation facilities

ATHENS, Greece — Authorities in Greece say they are seeking help from other European Union members to create medical isolation facilities on islands where large refugee camps are considered potentially vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus.

George Koumoutsakos the deputy minister for migration affairs says 28 confirmed cases of the virus have been recorded at two camps on the Greek mainland. But none so far at camps on Lesbos and other Greek islands near the coast of Turkey where more than 40,000 migrants and refugees are located.

The minister says Austria had offered 180 container homes, adding building space had been located on Lesbos and the nearby island of Chios to create isolation and treatment facilities.

Germany seeks to reduce reliance on Asian manufacturers for protective equipment

BERLIN — Germany’s health minister says more than 100 companies have submitted promising responses to the government’s call for offers to manufacture protective medical equipment.

Health Minister Jens Spahn didn’t identify the companies. The government plans to award contracts for companies from mid-August at the latest through the end of 2021.

Germany wants to reduce its dependence on Asian manufacturers because demand has surged worldwide during the coronavirus pandemic. That makes the market for imports increasingly competitive as countries struggle to get supplies to health workers.

Indonesia enacts sweeping Ramadan travel bans

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo has officially banned all civil servants, police officers, military personnel and employees of state-owned companies from returning to their hometowns to celebrate the end of Ramadan with families in an attempt to curb the coronavirus spread.

Widodo said in a video conference Thursday that his administration is still evaluating whether a similar prohibition to be imposed to the rest of people in the world’s most populous Muslim nation. He said the decision will be announced within days.

Indonesia, with a population of nearly 270 million, has more Muslims than any other country in the world.

The annual mass exodus usually involves tens of millions of Indonesians crisscrossing the vast archipelago for Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the Islamic holy month. The holiday is expected to fall on May 24.

Those travellers, mostly crammed into trains, ferries, buses and in greater numbers of cars and motorcycles, could play a role in disease transmission from urban density to rural areas. But Widodo said there are some groups of travellers who may be allowed to return to their villages for economic reasons.

“We cannot ban those who lost their jobs and income in this pandemic crisis from returning to their villages,” he said.

Indonesia recorded new 337 COVID-19 cases on Thursday, its biggest daily jump since the start of the pandemic, bringing the country’s total to 3,293.

Indonesia has the highest death toll in Asia after China, with 280 deaths.

Oxfam: 500 million people will be pushed into poverty

LONDON — Oxfam is warning that half a billion people in the developing world could be pushed into poverty as a result of the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

In the run-up to three key international economic meetings next week, the anti-poverty campaigning group has urged richer countries to step up their relief efforts.

In a report based on research at King’s College London and the Australian National University, Oxfam is calling on world leaders to agree an `Economic Rescue Package for All’ to keep poor countries and poor communities afloat. Among the measures it is recommending is the immediate cancellation of $1 trillion worth of developing country debt payments in 2020.

Jose Maria Vera, Oxfam International Interim Executive Director says “for poor people in poor countries who are already struggling to survive there are almost no safety nets to stop them falling into poverty.”

Croatia eases some shopping restrictions

ZAGREB, Croatia — Croatia has started reopening open air markets, in the first sign of easing of strict rules against the spread of the new coronavirus in the country.

Wearing protective masks, residents of Zagreb on Thursday lined up at one of the markets on a sunny day, keeping distance from one another as they waited to buy home-grown fruit, vegetables or other products.

Open-air markets are highly popular in Croatia, offering a chance for producers from small farms to sell their products. Those markets were closed for weeks as part of the anti-virus lockdown.

Buyers in Zagreb said they are happy that the markets were reopening, but contended it will be a while before life returns to normal. One woman says: “We must be patient.”

Inside the small wooden houses, sellers offered their products through open windows. Authorities have said markets can open only if strict hygienic and distancing rules are respected.

Croatia has confirmed 1,343 cases of infections with the new coronavirus, while 19 people have died.

Concerned about Easter weekend, Portugal ramps up travel bans

LISBON, Portugal — Authorities in Portugal have halted commercial flights at the country’s five international airports as part of the battle against the coronavirus.

Officials are concerned that over the Easter weekend people may be reluctant to stay at home, as they have been instructed to do for weeks under a national state of emergency.

Additional restrictions came into force Thursday for a four-day period, including a ban on people leaving their council area or more than five people gathering in one place, as well as a flight prohibition.

Police set up checkpoints on major roads and junctions.

The land border with Spain, which traditionally sends many tourists for the Easter break, has been closed for weeks.

Portugal has officially recorded 380 cases of coronavirus deaths, compared with Spain’s more than 15,000 deaths.

After two-day uptick, cases and deaths decline in Spain

MADRID — Spanish health authorities say that reported coronavirus infections and deaths have gone down again after a two-day uptick, hopefully signalling a return to the overall slowdown in the pandemic growth under a national lockdown.

The Health Ministry said Thursday that authorities reported 5,756 new cases and 683 new deaths over the previous 24-hour period. That is compared to new 6,180 cases and 757 new deaths on Wednesday.

Overall, Spain has 152,446 infections and 15,238 fatalities since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, situating it as one of the world’s hardest-hit countries along with the United States and Italy.

Over 52,000 patients have also recovered in Spain, as pressure has eased slightly on its hospitals.

Like many countries, Spain is struggling to gauge the true extent of the virus outbreak due to a lag in testing of the general population. Authorities have recognized that several thousand of elderly people have died in nursing homes without being tested. Only deaths of people who had tested positive are being included in the official statistics.

The latest figures were released as Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez appeared before the national Parliament to ask for its endorsement of a second two-week extension of Spain’s state of emergency that permits the lockdown against the virus. Support is expected after the main opposition party said it would back the Socialist-led coalition government.

Slovakia orders lockdown of five Roma settlements

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Slovakia’s authorities have ordered a lockdown of five poor settlements where the Roma live separated from the majority population after 31 people there tested positive for the coronavirus.

Prime Minister Igor Matovic announced the lockdown, the first in Slovakia, on Thursday, saying “I’ll be glad if you understand the necessity of the decision.”

The military health personnel started the testing on Friday in 33 such settlements where the poorest of the poor Roma live, often without access to running water and without sewage systems. Authorities fear such conditions would result in a rapid spreading of the infection.

The testing in the settlements was requested by Roma activists.

Initially, authorities were focusing on over a thousand of those Roma who recently returned from abroad from countries seriously hit by the epidemic, including Britain. A total of 816 had been tested as of Wednesday. Slovakia has 682 infections, and two people have died.

Mass gatherings may be banned in Iran

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran’s supreme leader is suggesting that mass gatherings in the Islamic Republic may be barred through the holy Muslim fasting month Ramadan amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made the comment Thursday as Iran is trying to restart its economic activity after suffering one of the world’s worst outbreaks. Ramadan is set to begin in late April and last through most of May.

Khamenei urged Shiite faithful to pray in their homes during Ramadan. Shiite typically pray communally, especially during Ramadan.

Iran has reported over 67,000 confirmed cases of the new virus, with nearly 4,000 deaths. However, experts have repeatedly questioned those numbers, especially as Iran initially downplayed the outbreak in February amid the 41st anniversary of its 1979 Islamic Revolution and a crucial parliamentary vote.

Belgium: Military aid requested for nursing homes

BRUSSELS — Authorities in the French-speaking Walloon region have requested the support of Belgian armed forces to tackle the worrying situation at nursing homes, where several hundred residents have died because of COVID-19.

According to official figures released this month, a third of the deaths linked to the deadly virus in the region of southern Belgium have been registered in resting homes.

Christie Morreale, the Walloon health minister, said Thursday that her request for help has been granted by Belgian federal authorities. A total of 116 nursing homes in the region have been hit by a COVID-19 cluster, a situation where at least 10 cases of the new coronavirus have been confirmed.

Morreale said the military personal could help cater to residents or decontaminate premises infected with the deadly virus. She also asked doctors to volunteer to attend to patients in resting homes.

The situation is concerning too in the neighbouring Flanders region, where more than 600 nursing home residents are suspected to have died as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 2,000 virus-related deaths have been recorded in the country with a population of approximately 11.5 million people.