NEW YORK: Photo shows headstones in Calvary Cemetery in the Borough of Queens in New York. A military hospital ship arrived in New York on March 30, 2020 as America’s coronavirus epicenter prepares to fight the peak of the pandemic that has killed over 2,500 people across the US. – AFP

WASHINGTON: Americans were told Tuesday to brace for “very painful” weeks ahead in a worsening coronavirus pandemic projected to claim up to a quarter million US lives, as fatalities spiked in European hotspots Spain, France and Britain. With more than 42,100 already killed by the disease barreling around the globe, the United States registered a record 865 deaths in 24 hours – taking its death toll to 3,873.

As field hospitals sprouted in the US outbreak’s epicenter New York City, Trump said he was extending social distancing and stay-at-home orders for another 30 days. “This is going to be a very painful – a very, very painful – two weeks,” the president said at the White House as he described the pandemic as “a plague.”

“I want every American to be prepared for the hard days that lie ahead.” In a matter of months, the virus has infected more than 857,000 people in a crisis hammering the global economy and transforming the daily existence of some 3.6 billion people told to stay home under lockdowns. Deaths shot up again across Europe. While there are hopeful signs that the spread of infections is slowing in hardest-hit Italy and Spain, more than 800 died overnight in both countries.

France recorded a one-day record of 499 dead while Britain reported 381 coronavirus deaths. But members of Trump’s coronavirus task force offered a grim forecast of between 100,000 and 240,000 US deaths in coming months, taking into account current mitigation efforts. “As sobering a number as that is, we should be prepared for it,” Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said with Trump at his side when asked about the lower figure of 100,000.

But Fauci said mitigation was “actually working” and that authorities are doing everything they can to get the death toll “significantly below that.” With hospitals direly overstretched, lockdowns have been extended despite their crushing economic impact. In Belgium a 12-year-old girl died in another worrying case of a youth succumbing to the disease. France joined the US with a surge to 3,525 deaths, an official toll that includes only those who died in hospital and not those who perished at home or in seniors’ homes.

‘We need help now’
The inundation of patients has sent health facilities worldwide into overdrive. Emergency hospitals are popping up in event spaces while distressed medical staff make grim decisions about how to distribute limited protective gear, beds and life-saving respirators. In scenes previously unimaginable in peacetime, around a dozen white tents were erected to serve as a field hospital in New York’s Central Park.

While many companies and schools around the globe have shifted to teleworking and teaching over video platforms, huge swaths of the world’s workforce cannot perform their jobs online and are now lacking pay and face a deeply uncertain future. Food banks in New York City have seen a huge rise in newcomers struggling to feed their families.

“It is my first time,” Lina Alba, a cleaner at a Manhattan hotel that closed two weeks ago, said from a food distribution center. “We need the help now. This is crazy,” said Alba, a 40-year-old single mother of five. Three quarters of Americans are now under some form of lockdown, while off the Florida coast a coronavirus-stricken cruise ship and its sister vessel are pleading for somewhere to dock after four passengers died on board.

Virus breeds divisions
The extraordinary economic and political upheaval spurred by the virus is opening new fronts for cooperation and conflict. In virtual talks Tuesday, finance ministers and central bankers from the world’s 20 major economies pledged to address the debt burden of low-income countries and deliver aid to emerging markets. Last week G20 leaders said they were injecting $5 trillion into the global economy to head off a feared deep recession. In the European Union, however, battle lines have been drawn over the terms of a rescue plan.

Worst-hit Italy and Spain are leading a push for a shared debt instrument – dubbed “coronabonds.” But talk of shared debt is a red line for Germany and other northern countries, threatening to divide the bloc. European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen also warned against using emergency measures as a pretext for power grabs – after a new law gave Hungary’s nationalist leader Viktor Orban authority to rule by decree until his government deems the crisis over.

‘Shocking’ death toll
Meanwhile, the number of deaths from coronavirus in the United Kingdom rose by 27% in the space of a day, according to new figures on Tuesday that a senior cabinet minister described as shocking and disturbing. The government said 1,789 people have died in hospitals from coronavirus as of 1600 GMT on Monday, an increase of 381 from Sunday, the largest rise in absolute terms yet. “The increase in the number of deaths is deeply shocking, disturbing (and) moving,” Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said at a news conference, adding that it was not possible to predict when fatalities would peak.

“It depends on the actions of all of us,” he added. “We can delay that peak, we can flatten the curve through our own particular actions.” Later on Tuesday, a London hospital announced that a 13-year-old boy had died after contracting coronavirus, Britain’s youngest fatality from the pandemic. Britain initially took a gradual approach to containing the virus compared with European countries such as Italy.

But Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed stringent controls after projections showed a quarter of a million people could die. Johnson has since become the first leader of a major power to announce a positive test result for coronavirus. Britain lags Italy, Spain and France in terms of the number of deaths, but they are still doubling around every 3.5 days. While that is similar to the trajectory of Italy – the world’s worst-hit country – when it was reporting similar numbers of deaths just over two weeks ago, British officials said on Tuesday they saw tentative reasons for optimism.

Official figures showed confirmed cases rose 14% between Monday and Tuesday to 25,150 as of Tuesday at 0800 GMT, the third day of increases around that rate – slowing from around 22-24% last Thursday and Friday. “We’re not out of the woods, we’re very much in the woods, and it’s really important that we keep complying with those instructions,” said Stephen Powis, director of the National Health Service in England.- Agencies