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Spain in near-lockdown, on the verge of crisis

Members of the Military Emergencies Unit carried out a general disinfection at an extended care facility in Barcelona.
Members of the Military Emergencies Unit carried out a general disinfection at an extended care facility in Barcelona.AFP via Getty Images

The Spanish government warned citizens that the situation will get worse after the country suffered its deadliest day yet of the coronavirus outbreak.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez convened an emergency Cabinet meeting to try to chart a way out of the crisis rapidly engulfing the nation. The Health Ministry on Friday reported another 769 deaths, lifting the total number of fatalities to 4,858. Confirmed cases climbed to 64,059, with Spaniards near the end of the second week of a state of emergency set to last at least until April 11.

The country is on almost complete lockdown and the government is counting on limited social interactions helping contain the spread of the disease, which has already killed more people there than in China, where the pandemic originated.

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‘‘We may be entering a phase of stabilization, but we haven’t reached the peak yet,’’ Health Minister Salvador Illa said at a news conference in Madrid.

Spain’s economy could shrink as much as 4.5 percent in 2020 due to the impact of the virus, according to a report published Friday by Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria.

‘‘An extraordinary crisis like COVID-19 requires the use of all economic policy tools,’’ the bank said. ‘‘In this situation, fiscal-policy makers should do all they can to mitigate the possible permanent consequences.’’

Bloomberg News

Death toll climbs, temporary hospital built in Iran

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran announced another 144 deaths from the coronavirus on Friday and said thousands more were in critical condition as the military completed work on a 2,000-bed field hospital in an exhibition center in the capital.

Iran has reported nearly 2,400 deaths among more than 32,000 cases. Iranian officials have repeatedly insisted they have the outbreak under control despite concerns it could overwhelm the country’s health facilities.

In Yemen, meanwhile, the US Agency for International Development began scaling back aid efforts in areas controlled by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels over their resistance to allowing measures that ensure aid goes to those who most need it. Yemen has yet to record any coronavirus cases, but an outbreak in the war-torn country could be catastrophic.

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Iran’s military said the new facility, which includes three units and several isolation wards, was set up in just 48 hours. It will be used for patients who are recovering from the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus.

State TV on Thursday quoted General Ali Jahanshahi as saying the hospital has been handed over to medical staff and will begin receiving patients next week.

Most people infected by the virus only experience mild symptoms, such as fever and cough, and recover within a few weeks. But the virus can cause severe illness and death, particularly in older patients or those with underlying health problems. It is highly contagious and can be spread by otherwise healthy people showing no visible symptoms.

The virus has infected more than half a million people worldwide and killed more than 24,000. More than 120,000 people have recovered, according to the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

Iran is battling the worst outbreak in the region. Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour announced the latest deaths on Friday, bringing the total number of fatalities to 2,378 amid 32,332 confirmed cases.

Iran’s government has faced widespread criticism for not acting faster to contain the virus. Only in recent days have authorities ordered nonessential businesses to close and banned travel between cities — long after other nations in the region imposed sweeping lockdowns.

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On Thursday, the national committee established to combat the outbreak, which includes President Hassan Rouhani, ordered the closure of national parks. The move came ahead of Nature Day on April 1, when Iranians typically gather for outdoor picnics.

Earlier this week, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, refused American aid and seized on a conspiracy theory that the United States created the virus, something for which there is no scientific evidence.

Associated Press

Pope Francis holds service in empty St. Peter’s Square

VATICAN CITY — Praying in a desolately empty St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis on Friday likened the coronavirus pandemic to a storm laying bare illusions that people can be self-sufficient and instead leaves “all of us fragile and disoriented” and needing each other’s help and comfort.

Francis stood under a canopy erected on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica while leading a special prayer service as rain soaked the usually crowded cobblestone square. “Open our hearts to hope,” he said in his opening prayer.

“Lord, may you bless the world, give health to our bodies, and comfort our hearts,’’ he prayed

At the end of the hour-long ceremony, he delivered a blessing that is traditionally reserved for the holy days of Christmas and Easter.

Wearing a simple white cassock, Francis climbed the sloping steps of the square by himself until he neared a canopied platform that had been erected to shelter him from the elements, taking the arm of an aide for the last steps.

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Francis referred to the 17th-century colonnade that delineates St. Peter’s Square while praying, “From this colonnade that embraces Rome and the whole world, may God’s blessing come down upon you as a consoling embrace.”

He compared the viral outbreak plaguing Italy and much of the world to an “unexpected, turbulent storm.’’

‘‘We have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us now called to row together, each of us in need of comforting each other,” the pope said.

Then, moving to a temporary altar near the basilica’s entrance, he prayed silently and listened to a series of invocations, including one that said, “Save us, O Lord, from illness, epidemics and fear of one’s brother.”

The prayer service was one of several scheduled over the next few weeks that will see the 83-year-old pontiff virtually solo in the square or celebrating Masses for Holy Week and Easter Sunday in the shelter of St. Peter’s Basilica instead of outdoors in the company of tens of thousands of faithful.

Earlier Friday, the Vatican announced that Francis will mark Holy Week ceremonies in the confines of Vatican City, including a Good Friday Way of the Cross service on the steps of the basilica.

It has declined to say if Francis, who a few weeks ago had a cold, has been tested for COVID-19, and if so, what the result was. Among the Vatican’s confirmed cases is an Italian prelate who lives at a Vatican hotel where Francis resides.

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Associated Press

Japanese cherry blossom tourism shut down

TOKYO — Japan’s cherry blossoms are in full bloom, but flower viewing has come to an abrupt halt in Tokyo because of the coronavirus.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike has repeatedly asked the city’s 13 million residents to stay home this weekend, saying the capital is on the brink of an explosion in virus infections. She warned of a possible hard shutdown of the city if the spread of the virus doesn’t slow.

On Friday evening, access was blocked to Ueno Park, a favorite spot for “hanami,’’ or cherry blossom viewing. Signs said “No parties” and “Danger no entry.’’

The empty park was a sharp change from last weekend, when people came in droves after the central government announced an end to national school closures, leading many to think that the outbreak was under control, when it was actually worsening in the capital.

Koike repeated her stay-at-home request Friday, asking Tokyoites to postpone their flower viewing until next year.

Associated Press