Soldiers drafted in to help Spain tackle the coronavirus pandemic by disinfecting and running residential homes have found a number of elderly people abandoned and dead in their beds, according to the country’s defence minister.
News of the grim discoveries came as Spain experienced a further rise in the number of coronavirus deaths and cases, and as health authorities set about distributing almost 650,000 rapid testing kits.
On Monday, the country’s defence minister, Margarita Robles, said that members of the specialist Military Emergencies Unit had found the corpses as they carried out their duties.
“During some of its visits, the army has seen some totally abandoned elderly people – even some who were dead in their beds,” Robles told the Ana Rosa TV programme.
Robles said such inhumane treatment would not be tolerated and that anyone ignoring their responsibilities would be prosecuted.
“We’re going to be very blunt and implacable over this and we have a very clear message: the full weight of the law will fall on those who don’t meet their obligations,” she added.
The virus has now claimed 2,182 lives in the country – up from 1,720 on Sunday – while the number of confirmed cases has increased from 28,572 to 33,089.
The rising death toll has placed a strain on hospitals and funeral homes around Madrid and led regional health authorities to set up a makeshift morgue at the Palacio de Hielo, a large ice rink in the north-east of the capital. “This is a temporary and extraordinary measure primarily intended to mitigate the pain of victims’ families and the situation in Madrid’s hospitals,” the regional government said on Monday.
In Spain, testing kits are being issued for frontline hospital staff, older people in care homes, and those in regions most affected by the virus. Around 12% of all those diagnosed with the coronavirus – some 3,910 people – are health workers, the government said on Monday morning.
The increase in cases in Spain came as the US scrambled to tackle the coronavirus pandemic amid blunt warnings that time and resources are running out, with the number of confirmed cases in the country rising above 35,000.
By Sunday night, the US had overtaken Spain to become the third most-affected country, behind China and Italy, with the US death toll standing at 417.
Political leaders in New York – where about half the US cases have been reported – told the White House that people in the region felt abandoned and vulnerable.
Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, said hospital supplies including ventilators, masks and surgical gloves would be exhausted within 10 days, while Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York state, warned that up to 80% of his state’s population of almost 20 million was at risk of contracting the virus.
And there were fears of a coming change in the Trump administration’s strategy to fight the virus, when the president tweeted: “We cannot let the cure be worse than the problem itself.”
In other developments:
Deaths in Italy rose by 601 – but this figure was smaller than that for Sunday (651), which was smaller than Saturday’s record figure of 793. Lombardy health minister Giulio Gallera said this showed a “downward trend”. Italy has banned any movement inside the country and closed all non-essential businesses following a weekend in which more than 1,400 people died.
India on Monday announced a halt to domestic flights and said the majority of the country was under complete lockdown to stop the spread of coronavirus.
Wuhan, the centre of the coronavirus outbreak in China, has begun to loosen its two-month lockdown on citizens.
South Korea reported its lowest number of new coronavirus cases on Monday, boosting hopes that Asia’s largest outbreak outside China may be abating.
Hong Kong said it would ban the entry of all non-residents from 11.59pm on Tuesday, for 14 days.
Three doctors have died in France after contracting the coronavirus, according to the AFP news agency. The French health minister, Olivier Véran, confirmed a hospital doctor died on Sunday. There are reports that a 66-year-old gynaecologist and a 60-year-old GP – both from eastern France where hospitals have also been overwhelmed with patients – have also died.
New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, announced the country would go into a month-long lockdown from Wednesday.
More than 670 Filipino health workers have been quarantined over fears they were exposed to coronavirus, while others have resorted to using bin bags for protection as case numbers rise across much of south-east Asia. More than 50 million people in the Philippines remain under lockdown.
Canada became the first country to warn that it will not send its athletes to the Tokyo Olympics unless they are postponed for a year, as pressure builds to delay the Games.
The disgraced former film producer Harvey Weinstein, who is serving a prison sentence for sexual assault and rape, has tested positive for the coronavirus, according to prison authorities in New York.
Meanwhile, the head of Germany’s leading public health advisory body said the exponential upwards curve in new confirmed coronavirus infections was levelling off for the first time, due to strict social distancing measures in force across the country.
Lothar Wieler, the president of the Robert Koch Institute, urged caution, saying that many health authorities had not yet submitted their data from the weekend. “I will only be able to confirm this trend definitively on Wednesday,” he said. But he added he remained optimistic.
Germany has closed all its schools, and on Sunday ruled that no more than two people can gather at once, except for families or people sharing a household.
The Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, has called on the EU to instigate a “Marshall plan” to counter the economic effects of the crisis, and announced that the country’s state of emergency would be extended until 11 April.
Sánchez’s vice-president, Carmen Calvo, was admitted to hospital for treatment for a respiratory infection, Spanish media reported. Two cabinet ministers and the prime minister’s wife, Begoña Gómez, have tested positive for the coronavirus.
Authorities in Madrid, where almost a third of the country’s cases have been reported, have set up a huge field hospital inside the capital’s main conference centre. The facility at the Ifema centre, which took in its first patients over the weekend, could accommodate 5,500 people.
The country has been in lockdown since 14 March, with people allowed out only to buy food or medicine or to seek medical help or travel to and from work.
Fernando Simón, the head of Spain’s centre for health emergencies, said that talk of the contagion peaking this week could not allow people to become complacent.
“These are going to be crucial days because reaching a peak doesn’t mean things have been solved; it means we have to redouble our efforts to guarantee we don’t take a step backwards,” he said.
The mayor of Madrid, José Luis Martínez-Almeida, has said that municipal undertakers will cease collecting the bodies of coronavirus victims from Tuesday as they do not have the protective material needed to ensure their own safety.
In a letter to Spain’s health minister, seen by El Mundo, the mayor called for more resources, adding: “I hope you are aware of the gravity of the situation if this week we find ourselves unable to bury and cremate people who fell victim to Covid.”