Traffic piles up in Europe as virus lockdowns close borders
CONTINUING COVERAGE: CORONAVIRUS
March 18, 2020
Desperate travelers in cars and trucks choked European borders on Wednesday, creating traffic jams up to 17 miles long as they sought to get back home before borders slammed shut or deliver critical supplies to help nations cope with calamity of the quickly spreading coronavirus.
Hungary overnight opened its borders in phases, seeking to alleviate some of the pressure from eastern Europeans trying to return home. Bulgarian citizens were first allowed to cross the immigrant-phobic country in carefully controlled convoys, then Romanians had a turn.
But by early Wednesday on the Austrian side of the border, trucks were backed up for 17 miles and cars for nearly nine miles as rules allowing only Hungarians or transport trucks through the country's borders kicked back in.
European Union leaders have been working on how to make sure that food, medical supplies and other essential goods keep flowing but so far borders have been clogged. Looking ahead, they're also trying to figure out ways to allow seasonal agricultural workers, needed to keep the production of food going, to travel back and forth across essentially closed borders.
Nations around the world were facing the same issues, with the U.S. and Canada working on a mutual ban on nonessential travel between the two countries.
In Southeast Asia, the causeway between Malaysia and the financial hub of Singapore was eerily quiet after Malaysia shut its borders, while the Philippines backed down on an order giving foreigners 72 hours to leave from a large part of its main island.
President Donald Trump's administration was considering a plan to immediately return to Mexico all people who cross America's southern border illegally, according to two officials who spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because the plan hasn't been finalized.
The coronavirus that has infected nearly 200,000 people worldwide, killing 7,900 of them, is now present in every U.S. state after West Virginia reported an infection. In far-flung Hawaii, the governor encouraged travelers to postpone their island vacations for at least the next 30 days, while the governor of Nevada — home to Las Vegas — ordered a monthlong closure of the state's casinos.
Increasingly worried about the economic fallout of the global shutdown, the U.S., Britain and the Netherlands announced rescue packages totaling hundreds of billions of dollars, while longtime International Monetary Fund critic Venezuela asked the institution for a $5 billion loan.
Major Asian stock markets fell back Wednesday after early gains after Wall Street jumped on Trump's promise of aid.
In Brussels, Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, said there had been "a unanimous and united approach" to the decision to prohibit most foreigners from entering the EU for 30 days.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said European leaders agreed in a conference call to the commission's proposal for an entry ban to the bloc — along with Norway, Switzerland, Iceland and Britain — with "very, very limited exceptions." Germany will implement the decision immediately.
But so far, EU efforts to smooth the transition have failed.
On Wednesday, thousands of trucks remained backed up in Lithuania on roads into Poland, after Warsaw ordered strict measures that include testing every driver for COVID-19 symptoms. The line of trucks was 37 miles long on Tuesday night.
"The Polish and Lithuanian governments have opened a second crossing, but that did not help much," said border police spokesman Rokas Pukinsas.
Elsewhere, droves of Malaysians endured hours-long traffic jams as they sought to get into Singapore before the border closure. More than 300,000 people commute daily to Singapore to work and many have chosen to stay there during the lockdown.
Malaysia's restricted movement order came after a sharp spike in coronavirus cases to 673, making it the worst-affected country in Southeast Asia.
The self-governing island of Taiwan said Wednesday that it too would ban foreigners from entry and Taiwanese would have to self-quarantine at home for 14 days.
In Thailand, Bangkok's notorious red light districts were due to go dark Wednesday after a government order closing bars, schools, movie theaters and many other venues.
Even tourists on Ecuador's iconic Galapagos islands — 620 miles off the South American mainland — have been affected. Canadian Jessy Lamontaine and her family were stuck on the island when flights were suspended and they missed the last trip out.
"I was in tears this morning," Lamontaine said. "I couldn't get any answers from the airline. I had no money and didn't know whether I was going to keep my job."
Galapagos Gov. Norman Wray said the 2,000 foreigners who remain on the archipelago in the next week may be able to leave on charter or government-approved flights.
So far, 81,000 people have recovered from the virus, mostly in China. 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.
In Italy, the hardest hit nation after China, infections jumped to 27,980 on Tuesday. With 2,503 deaths, Italy accounts for a third of the global death toll.
Spain, the fourth-most infected country, saw its cases soar by more than 2,000 in one day to 11,178. Virus-related deaths jumped to 491, a toll that included 17 elderly residents of a Madrid nursing home. Among them was the 86-year-old diabetic grandmother of Ainhoa Ruiz.
"We feel totally helpless and devastated because my grandma spent her last week only with her husband and caretakers but no other relatives," Ruiz said.
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 for a second straight day Wednesday.
In the U.S., the death toll surpassed 100, and officials urged older Americans and those with health problems to stay home. They also recommended all gatherings be capped at 10 people.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio warned that residents should be prepared for the possibility of a shelter-in-place order within days. A shelter-in-place order in the San Francisco Bay Area, requiring most residents to leave their homes only for food, medicine or exercise for three weeks, is the most sweeping lockdown in the U.S.
Janitor Miguel Aguirre, his wife and two children were the only people on a normally bustling street near City Hall. He showed up to work because he needed the money but his supervisor texted him to leave. He brought his two daughters because schools had closed. He already lost his second job at a hotel when tourism conferences were canceled.