Trucks are jammed on the motorway A4 near Bautzen, Germany, Tuesday, March 17, 2020. (Photo: AP)
Traffic jams swelled along borders and travelers appealed to their governments for help getting home Tuesday as countries in Europe and beyond imposed strict controls along their frontiers and grappled with the challenge of allowing the flow of goods but restricting people to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Tens of millions around the world were already hunkered down in government-ordered isolation after many countries ordered stores, schools and businesses shut down to combat the pandemic. The border closures stopped not only people but also needed goods, prompting the widespread hoarding of essentials.
German Agriculture Minister Julia Kloeckner castigated people for spreading panic by posting fake reports over social media that supermarkets would be closing, while urging people only to purchase what they needed for their own households.
“There is enough for everybody,” she said. “I’m certain we will weather this society-wide situation well, so long as we behave as a society.”
The European Union issued guidelines Monday aimed at facilitating the flow of critical goods like food and medicine, while helping individual nations restrict non-essential travel in an effort to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
But on Tuesday it was chaos on many borders with traffic backed up for dozens of kilometers (miles).
“We are all desperate, cold and sleepless here for a third day,” said Janina Stukiene, who was stuck in Lithuania on the border with Poland with her husband and son. “We just want to go home.”
The line of cars and trucks in Lithuania was some 60 kilometers (37 miles) long after Poland closed its border, while similar traffic jams could be seen on the borders with Germany and the Czech Republic.
Lithuania was sending military airplanes and special trains to Germany to help hundreds of its citizens stranded at the crossing points with Poland.
To try to help citizens from Estonia and Lithuania get home following closure of the Polish border, German police organized a convoy of vehicles to a ferry port on one of its Baltic Sea islands.
Estonia, meantime, commissioned a passenger ferry to fetch Estonians and Latvians unable to transit Poland to return home from Germany.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who had a phone call Monday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU officials, called Tuesday for “intensifying European coordination and quickly take effective and concerted action.” He condemned unilateral border control measures taken by some member states within the EU, according to his office.
Like Germany, France insists the free flow of goods must be guaranteed and cross-border commuting for work should be allowed.
Macron tightened internal guidelines, allowing people to leave home only to buy food, go to work or do essential tasks, saying that people hadn’t complied with earlier guidelines and “we are at war.”
Germany launched a 50 million euro ($56 million) effort to bring home thousands stranded in popular winter vacation spots across the globe, including up to 5,000 in Morocco alone.
“Even if we will do everything humanly possible, we cannot in every case provide a solution within 24 hours,” Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned.
More than 100,000 Germans are thought to be in various places around the world looking to get home, including some 30,000 in Egypt, primarily on holiday, and 4,000 to 6,000 in Morocco.
Airlines have slashed flights due to a plunge in demand but also because many countries have been barring foreign arrivals.
The German government is working with flagship carrier Lufthansa as well as travel companies on a plan to organize special flights to get citizens and residents home.
Turkey planned to evacuate 3,614 citizens stranded in nine European countries after flights were suspended, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said.
Regional authorities in Spain’s Balearic Islands effectively locked down the Mediterranean archipelago by restricting all but a handful of daily flights and incoming boats for returning island residents. Its president, Francisca Armengol, said the islands “will basically remain closed.”
Spain, now the fourth-most infected country, saw the number of people with the virus rise by more than 2,000 in one day to 11,178 and virus-related deaths jump by almost 200 to 491. Only China, Italy and Iran had more infections.
With the number of cases worldwide topping 185,000, a surge of patients in Madrid’s hospitals has fueled worries in Europe and elsewhere of what lies ahead.
The virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, for most people, but severe illness is more likely in the elderly and people with existing health problems. COVID-19 has killed over 7,300 people so far, while more than 80,000 have recovered.
Iran state TV warned that “millions” could die in the Islamic Republic alone if the public keeps traveling and ignores health guidance. World Health Organization officials have said the number of cases there — nearly 15,000 with 853 deaths — have been sharply under-reported.
In Italy, reported infections jumped to 27,980. With 2,158 deaths, Italy now accounts for well over a quarter of the global death toll.
Some bright spots emerged. Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the virus was first detected late last year and which has been under lockdown for weeks, reported just one new case Tuesday.
Shares reversed early losses in Asia on Tuesday and stocks pushed higher on Wall Street in early trading, a day after their worst plunge in more than three decades as more aid appeared on the way from Washington. The 4.5% rise for the S&P 500 followed Monday’s nearly 13% plummet.
Still, markets around the world remained highly volatile as traders see a recession growing more likely.
A senior South Korean health official, Kwon Jun-wook, urged people to take the virus seriously.
“In a similar way to how the Sept. 11 attacks completely changed people’s perception about security, quarantine authorities like us believe the daily lives of all the people around the world will be changed because of COVID-19,” Kwon said.
Malaysia banned foreign travel and was allowing only essential services to stay open.
The eastern Caribbean island of Barbados confirmed its first two cases, saying both were linked to people who had recently traveled there from the US.
Jack Ma, founder of the Chinese tech giant Alibaba, said his foundation would donate more than 1 million testing kits — 20,000 testing kits to each of Africa’s 54 countries —as the coronavirus starts to spread on the extremely vulnerable continent.
Thirty African countries have confirmed cases but about a dozen lack testing capability.
“We cannot ... assume this continent of 1.3 billion people will blissfully escape the crisis,” Ma said.
Bloomberg Philanthropies also announced a $40 million initiative to help vulnerable countries, notably in Africa.
As the pandemic expanded in Europe, the Mideast and the Americas, China and South Korea were trying to hold their hard-fought gains. China was quarantining new arrivals and South Korea was to increase screenings of all overseas arrivals.
Infections have continued to slow in South Korea’s worst-hit city of Daegu. But there’s concern over a steady rise of infections around Seoul, where new clusters have emerged.
In the US, officials urged older Americans and those with chronic health conditions to stay home, and recommended all group gatherings be capped at 10 people.
School closings in 56 countries kept more than 516 million students home, the UN said. New York City joined those ranks Monday, closing a school system with 1.1 million students.
Some countries that had resisted more stringent measures snapped into action, too.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told people to eliminate unnecessary contact with others, work from home where possible and avoid bars, restaurants, theaters and other venues. Schools remained opened for the time being.
Some scientists, and many worried Britons, have said the government should have taken tough action sooner.
Britain’s dramatic escalation of restrictions was sparked by new scientific evidence suggesting that 250,000 people in the UK and more than 1 million in the US might die if the country did not suppress its spread.
The analysis, published by Imperial College London, drew on the latest data from China and Italy. It found that a strategy of “mitigation” — slowing but not stopping the spread of the virus while protecting vulnerable groups like the elderly — would still lead to a huge number of cases that would overwhelm the health care system.
The researchers estimated as many as half of all cases were not identified and that 30% of hospitalized patients would require critical care. They also suggested almost 81% of the population in the US and UK might be infected during the pandemic and said the drastic social restrictions might need to be in place for many months, until a vaccine is available that could help avoid a rebound in the virus’ spread.
Associated Press writers Chris Blake in Bangkok, Geir Moulson in Berlin, Sylvie Corbet in Paris, Jari Tanner in Helsinki, Finland, Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Aritz Parra in Madrid, Adam Geller in New York, Mike Corder in Amsterdam, Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin, Cara Anna in Johannesburg, Jill Lawless and Maria Cheng in London, Liudas Dapkus in Vilnius, Lithuania, Colleen Barry in Milan, Italy, Karel Janicek in Prague, Ken Moritsugu in Beijing, Kim Tong-hyung and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Sheikh Saaliq in New Delhi.