Global coronavirus deaths top half a million

By Jane Wardell and Cate Cadell

SYDNEY/BEIJING (Reuters) – The death toll from COVID-19 surpassed half a million people on Sunday, according to a Reuters tally, a grim milestone for the global pandemic that seems to be resurgent in some countries even as other regions are still grappling with the first wave.

The respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus has been particularly dangerous for the elderly, although other adults and children are also among the 501,000 fatalities and 10.1 million reported cases.

While the overall rate of death has flattened in recent weeks, health experts have expressed concerns about record numbers of new cases in countries like the United States, India and Brazil, as well as new outbreaks in parts of Asia.

More than 4,700 people are dying every 24 hours from COVID-19-linked illness, according to Reuters calculations based on an average from June 1 to 27.

That equates to 196 people per hour, or one person every 18 seconds.

About one-quarter of all the deaths so far have been in the United States, the Reuters data shows. The recent surge in cases has been most pronounced in a handful of Southern and Western states that reopened earlier and more aggressively. U.S. officials on Sunday reported around 44,700 new cases and 508 additional deaths.

Case numbers are also growing swiftly in Latin America, on Sunday surpassing those diagnosed in Europe, making the region the second most affected by the pandemic, after North America.

On the other side of the world, Australian officials were considering reimposing social distancing measures in some regions on Monday after reporting the biggest one-day rise in infections in more than two months.

The first recorded death from the new virus was on Jan. 9, a 61-year-old man from the Chinese city of Wuhan who was a regular shopper at a wet market that has been identified as the source of the outbreak.

In just five months, the COVID-19 death toll has overtaken the number of people who die annually from malaria, one of the most deadly infectious diseases.

The death rate averages out to 78,000 per month, compared with 64,000 AIDS-related deaths and 36,000 malaria deaths, according to 2018 figures from the World Health Organization.

CHANGING BURIAL RITES

The high number of deaths has led to changes to traditional and religious burial rites around the world, with morgues and funeral businesses overwhelmed and loved ones often barred from bidding farewell in person.

In Israel, the custom of washing the bodies of Muslim deceased is not permitted, and instead of being shrouded in cloth, they must be wrapped in a plastic body bag. The Jewish tradition of Shiva where people go to the home of mourning relatives for seven days has also been disrupted.

In Italy, Catholics have been buried without funerals or a blessing from a priest. In New York, city crematories were at one point working overtime, burning bodies into the night as officials scouted for temporary interment sites.

In Iraq, former militiamen have dropped their guns to instead dig graves for coronavirus victims at a specially created cemetery. They have learned how to conduct Christian, as well as Muslim, burials.

ELDERLY AT RISK

Public health experts are looking at how demographics affect the death rates in different regions. Some European countries with older populations have reported higher fatality rates, for instance.

An April report by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control looked at more than 300,000 cases in 20 countries and found that about 46% of all fatalities were over the age of 80.

In Indonesia, hundreds of children are believed to have died, a development health officials have attributed to malnutrition, anemia and inadequate child health facilities.

Health experts caution that the official data likely does not tell the full story, with many believing that both cases and deaths have likely been under reported in some countries.

(Reporting by Jane Wardell in Sydney and Cate Cadell in Beijing; Editing by Tiffany Wu and Daniel Wallis)

Australia asks embassy in U.S. to register concern over cameraman

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia has asked its embassy in the United States to register its concerns with authorities there about an apparent police assault on an Australian cameraman during a protest in Washington, its foreign minister said on Tuesday.

Earlier on Tuesday, thousands of Australians marched in Sydney to protest against the death of black American George Floyd in U.S. police custody, after days of demonstrations and clashes in the United States sparked by the killing.

The Sydney protest came as Australian police face questions about use of force during the arrest of a teenager of aboriginal descent.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne said the Australian government would support Channel Seven, where the cameraman worked, should it wish to lodge its concerns over the incident in Washington with U.S. authorities through the embassy there.

“I want to get further advice on how we would go about registering Australia’s strong concerns with the responsible local authorities in Washington,” Payne told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

“So our embassy in the United States will approach the relevant authorities, and Channel Seven will also provide us with their views on how they wish to deal with it.”

Video footage posted on social media showed Channel 7 correspondent Amelia Brace and cameraman Tim Myers broadcasting live on a street when riot police approached to clear the area, hitting Myers with a shield.

The pair are then seen trying to leave the scene while another policeman swung at them with a baton.

“This is obviously a very troubling period in the United States, and a very tough period,” Payne told the ABC. “We encourage all involved on both sides to exercise constraint and avoid violence.”

‘EVERYBODY’S PROBLEM’

Earlier, protesters in Australia’s biggest city defied coronavirus restrictions on crowds to march from a park towards government buildings, holding signs saying “I can’t breathe!” and chanting “Black lives matter” and “Take a knee” while mounted police stood by.

“This is everybody’s problem,” Kira Dargin, an aboriginal Wiradjuri woman at the protest told Reuters.

“As a black woman, I’m tired of seeing my brothers go down. As a black mother I fear for my child. Got to stop.”

An investigation has been opened in Sydney into the arrest of a 17-year-old of aboriginal descent after video footage appeared on social media showing him being handcuffed and kicked to the ground after an argument with police.

The constable involved has been put on restricted duties while the investigation takes place.

“This is not the United States of America,” Assistant Commissioner Michael Wiling told reporters. “We have very, very good relations with our local community. I’m concerned that people will pre-empt the outcomes of the investigation and draw conclusions prior to that.”

(Reporting by Paulina Duran, Loren Elliot, and Jill Gralow in Sydney; Editing by Timothy Heritage, Robert Birsel)

Latest on the spread of the coronavirus around the world

(Reuters) – The number of confirmed infections of the novel coronavirus were reported to have exceeded 1.5 million globally and the death toll rose above 89,400, according to a Reuters tally as of 1400 GMT.

DEATHS AND INFECTIONS

* For an interactive graphic tracking the global spread, open https://tmsnrt.rs/3aIRuz7 in an external browser.

* U.S.-focused tracker with state-by-state and county map, open https://tmsnrt.rs/2w7hX9T in an external browser.

EUROPE

* Spain’s prime minister warned that nationwide confinement would likely last until May even though he said the worst should soon be over and the death toll slowed.

* Italy may start lifting some restrictions by the end of April provided the slowing trend continues, its prime minister told the BBC, but the easing can only be gradual.

* Germany’s health minister said restrictions are flattening the curve showing new cases.

* British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is getting better but remains in intensive care as his government reviews the most stringent shutdown in the peacetime history.

* Russia reported a record one-day rise in cases, pushing its tally to more than 10,000, a day after President Vladimir Putin said the coming weeks would prove decisive in the fight against the virus.

* The Czech Republic plans to roll out a system of quickly tracking and isolating contacts of people with the virus to eventually allow the lifting of blanket restrictions.

* Slovakia closed off several Roma settlements in the eastern part of the country after reports of virus clusters in five of them.

* Bulgaria’s prime minister said the country’s Orthodox churches and temples will be open for traditional Palm Sunday and Easter services despite the outbreak.

AMERICAS

* The top U.S. infectious disease expert warned against reopening the economy too soon after a downward revisions in the projected death toll.

* The White House is expected to announce soon formation of a second coronavirus task force, this one devoted to getting the economy going again when the time is right.

* The U.S. Senate failed to pass an additional $250 billion of aid intended to help small businesses as Democrats and Republicans blocked each other’s proposals.

* Canada’s death toll is set to soar from the current 435 to as high as 22,000 by the end of the pandemic, while the economy lost a record 1 million jobs last month.

* Brazil’s health minister said the country’s attempts to purchase thousands of ventilators from China fell through and the government is now looking to Brazilian companies to build the devices.

* Mexico has reported more than 3,000 cases, but many who are infected likely did not have symptoms or were not diagnosed, with the actual number estimated at 26,500.

ASIA AND THE PACIFIC

* China will allocate more resources to prevent the spread of the virus from its land borders, as the country still faces risks of a comeback after new clusters are identified in some regions.

* The total number of infections in Japan hit more than 5,300 on Thursday, showing no signs of slowing despite a state of emergency being imposed on Tokyo and six other areas.

* India claimed initial success in its fight against the epidemic, saying it would have been hit with 820,000 cases by next week had it not imposed a nationwide lockdown.

* Vietnam said more than 1,000 healthcare workers and 14,400 others linked to an outbreak at a Hanoi hospital have tested negative.

* Singapore confirmed 287 new infections on Thursday, its biggest daily increase yet, with more than 200 of them linked to outbreaks in dormitories for foreign workers.

* Indonesia reported its biggest daily jump in deaths on Thursday, while neighbouring Malaysia had its second-lowest daily increase since a partial lockdown was imposed on March 18.

* Australian police said they have taken the “black box” of a cruise ship which disembarked hundreds of infected passengers in Sydney, as part of a homicide investigation into the country’s deadliest infection source.

MIDDLE EAST AND AFRICA

* All Botswana’s parliamentarians including the president will be quarantined for two weeks and tested, after a health worker screening lawmakers for the virus tested positive.

* Lebanon extended its almost month-long shutdown by another two weeks until April 26.

* Political and physical divisions in the West Bank and Gaza have induced two very different responses, with a strict lockdown in the first and crowds milling about freely in the second.

* A South African public sector union withdrew a court case against the government over shortages of protective gear for frontline health workers.

ECONOMIC FALLOUT

* Global equity benchmarks gained on Thursday following signs that governments and central banks are taking additional steps to bolster their economies as measures to slow the spread of the pandemic appear to be working.

* The pandemic will turn global economic growth “sharply negative” in 2020, triggering the worst fallout since the 1930s Great Depression, with only a partial recovery seen in 2021, the head of the International Monetary Fund said.

* The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits in the last three weeks has blown past 15 million, with weekly new claims topping 6 million for the second straight time.

* The U.S. Federal Reserve rolled out a broad, $2.3 trillion effort to bolster local governments and small and mid-sized businesses.

* U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that aid for airlines will be the “next big thing” to be rolled out.

* The European Union faces an existential threat if it cannot come together to combat the crisis, Italy said on Thursday as the divided bloc sought to salvage talks on a rescue package.

* The Bank of England has agreed temporarily to finance government borrowing if funds cannot immediately be raised from debt markets, reviving a measure last widely used during the 2008 financial crisis.

(Compiled by Sarah Morland, Milla Nissi, Aditya Soni and Uttaresh.V; Editing by Tomasz Janowski, Arun Koyyur and Anil D’Silva)

Tokyo 2020 delay looms after Canada and Australia exit

By Steve Keating and Leika Kihara

TORONTO/TOKYO (Reuters) – Major sporting nations Australia and Canada withdrew from the Tokyo 2020 Olympics on Monday as organizers faced global pressure to postpone the Games due to the coronavirus crisis for the first time in their 124-year modern history.

Putting back the July 24-Aug. 9 event, as is looking inevitable, would be a massive blow for host Japan which has pumped in more than $12 billion of investment.

Huge sums are also at stake for sponsors and broadcasters.

But a groundswell of concern from athletes – already struggling to train as gyms, stadiums and swimming pools close around the world – appears to be tipping the balance, along with the cancellation of other major sports events.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Japanese government have both edged back from weeks of blanket insistence the Games would go ahead, announcing a month-long consultation over other scenarios including postponement.

The Olympics have never before been delayed, though they were canceled altogether in 1916, 1940 and 1944 during the World Wars, and major Cold War boycotts disrupted the Moscow and Los Angeles Games in 1980 and 1984 respectively.

“The moment the IOC indicates that it is thinking about other solutions, it has already decided to delay the Games,” said French Olympic Committee president Denis Masseglia.

Canada and Australia both bluntly said they would not participate if the Games were not put back to 2021 and Britain may follow suit.

“We are in the midst of a global health crisis that is far more significant than sport,” said Canada’s Olympic Committee (COC) and Paralympic Committee (CPC) in a statement.

“STRESS AND UNCERTAINTY”

“Our athletes have been magnificent in their positive attitude to training and preparing, but the stress and uncertainty have been extremely challenging for them,” said Australia’s Olympics Chef de Mission, Ian Chesterman.

Paralympic athletes were considered at particular risk from the epidemic given some had underlying health problems. More than 14,600 people have died globally from the coronavirus.

Russia urged global sporting authorities to avoid “panic” over the Olympics and U.S. President Donald Trump expressed confidence in Japan to make the “proper” call.

But a raft of other nations and sports bodies piled pressure on the IOC – and its powerful president Thomas Bach, a former Olympic fencing champion – to make a quick decision on postponement.

“The faster the decision the better it is for the entire Olympic movement,” Greece’s Olympic head, Spyros Capralos, a former water polo player, told Reuters.

“I understand where the athletes are coming from … When you cannot train you are stressed, you live in agony which is disastrous. Postponement is inevitable.”

Athletes were sad but broadly supportive of a delay.

“The right choice was made, but it doesn’t make it any easier,” said Canadian world champion swimmer Maggie MacNeil, who was hoping to make her Olympic debut in Tokyo.

“Sometimes you just need a good hug.”

ABE AND BACH UNDER PRESSURE

Japanese authorities seemed to be bowing to the inevitable despite the losses and logistics headaches it would entail.

“We may have no option but to consider postponing,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was hoping for a boom in tourism and consumer spending, told parliament.

The organizing committee was already scaling back the torch relay to avoid crowds, NHK broadcaster said.

Both Japan and the IOC have stressed that calling off the Games entirely is not an option.

But finding a new date could be complicated as the summer 2021 calendar is already crowded, while 2022 will see the soccer World Cup and the Beijing Winter Olympics.

Japanese sponsors, from Toyota Motor Corp to Panasonic Corp, were nervously watching. But Tokyo stocks sensitive to the success of the Olympics surged on Monday, after sharp falls in prior weeks, thanks to expectations of a delay rather than a cancellation.

Ad agency Dentsu Group shares jumped 12%.

Postponement could be a major blow to the IOC’s prestige after weeks of saying the Games would go ahead as planned.

Many athletes already felt disrespected during the Russian doping scandal when Bach ensured Russians could carry on competing, albeit as neutrals. Now his strong grip on the IOC could weaken after various national committees distanced themselves from his stance over Tokyo.

“IOC President Thomas Bach’s stubbornness and arrogance have spectacularly failed in this instance and he has weakened the Olympic movement,” British Olympic gold medal track cyclist Callum Skinner wrote on Twitter.

Bach is up for re-election in 2021.

Global Athlete Group said the IOC’s planned, month-long consultation was irresponsible. “Over the next four weeks the world is going to increasingly shut down, the COVID-19 virus will sadly take more lives, and without a clear answer, athletes are still being indirectly asked to train,” it said.

(Additional reporting by Reuters bureaux worldwide; Writing by Karolos Grohmann and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Nick Macfie, William Maclean)

Lockdowns and entry bans imposed around the world to fight coronavirus

(Reuters) – France and Spain joined Italy in imposing lockdowns on tens of millions of people, Australia ordered self-isolation of arriving foreigners and other countries extended entry bans as the world sought to contain the spreading coronavirus.

Panic buying in Australia, the United States and Britain saw leaders appeal for calm over the virus that has infected over 156,000 people globally and killed more than 5,800.

Several countries imposed bans on mass gathering, shuttered sporting, cultural and religious events, while medical experts urged people to practice “social distancing” to curb the spread.

Austria’s chancellor urged people to self-isolate and announced bans on gatherings of more than five people and further limits on who can enter the country.

All of Pope Francis’ Easter services next month will be held without the faithful attending, the Vatican said on Sunday, in a step believed to be unprecedented in modern times.

The services, four days of major events from Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday, usually draw tens of thousands of people to sites in Rome and in the Vatican.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said from midnight Sunday international travelers arriving in the country would need to isolate themselves for 14 days, and foreign cruise ships would be banned for 30 days, given a rise in imported cases.

Australia’s latest restrictions mirror those announced by neighboring New Zealand on Saturday.

TRAVEL BANS, AIRLINE CUTBACKS

Donald Trump tested negative for the coronavirus, his doctor said on Saturday, as the U.S. president extended his country’s travel ban to Britain and Ireland.

Last week, Trump had met a Brazilian delegation in which at least one member has since been tested positive.

Travel restrictions and bans, and a plunge in global air travel, saw further airline cutbacks, with American Airlines Inc planning to cut 75% of international flights through May 6 and ground nearly all its widebody fleet.

China tightened checks on international travelers arriving at Beijing airport on Sunday, after the number of imported new coronavirus infections surpassed locally transmitted cases for a second day in a row.

Anyone arriving to Beijing from abroad will be transferred directly to a central quarantine facility for 14 days for observation starting March 16, a city government official said.

China, where the epidemic began in December, appears to now face a greater threat of new infections from outside its borders as it continues to slow the spread of the virus domestically.

South Korean soldiers clean desks with disinfectant in a classroom of a cram school for civil service exams, following the rise in confirmed cases of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Daegu, South Korea, March 15, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

China has reported 80,984 cases and 3,203 deaths. The country imposed draconian containment policies from January, locking down several major cities.

LOCKDOWNS, STAY HOME

Spain put its 47 million inhabitants under partial lockdown on Saturday as part of a 15-day state of emergency to combat the epidemic in Europe’s second worst-affected country after Italy.

Streets in Madrid and Barcelona were deserted on Sunday. All major newspapers carried a front-page wrapper emblazoned with a government-promoted slogan: “Together we’ll stop this virus.”

Spain has had 193 deaths from the virus and 6,250 cases so far, public broadcaster TVE said on Sunday.

France will shut shops, restaurants and entertainment facilities from Sunday with its 67 million people were told to stay home after confirmed infections doubled in 72 hours.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said the government had no other option after the public health authority said 91 people had died in France and almost 4,500 were now infected.

“We must absolutely limit our movements,” he said.

However, French local elections went ahead.

“I am going to vote and keep living my life no matter what. I am not scared of the virus,” said a 60-year-old voter, who asked to be identified only as Martine, at a Paris polling station.

Britain is preparing to ban mass gatherings and could isolate people aged over 70 for up to four months as part of plans to tackle coronavirus, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said.

Argentina banned entry to non-residents who have been to any country highly affected by coronavirus in the last 14 days, while Colombia said it would expel four Europeans for violating compulsory quarantine protocols, hours after closing its border with Venezuela.

Starting Sunday, South Korea began to subject visitors from France, Germany, Britain, Spain and the Netherlands to stricter border checks, after imposing similar rules for China, Italy and Iran which have had major outbreaks.

Visitors from those countries now need to download an app to report whether they have symptoms. South Korea has been testing hundreds of thousands of people and tracking potential carriers using cell phone and satellite technology.

(Reporting by John Irish in Paris;Belén Carreño, Sonya Dowsett and Ingrid Melander in Madrid; Brenda Goh in Shanghai; Judy Hua in Beijing; Kate Lamb in Sydney; David Shepardson in Washington; Tracy Rucinski in Chicago; Paul Sandle in London; Philip Pullella in Rome; Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi in Zurich; Writing by Michael Perry and Frances Kerry; Editing by Himani Sarkar and Edmund Blair)

Australia’s bushfire-stricken state pays tribute to 25 victims

By Lidia Kelly

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Families, firefighters and politicians gathered in a solemn public ceremony in Sydney on Sunday to honor the 25 people killed in recent bushfires that tore through the country’s most populous state.

The bushfires, which lasted from September until torrential rains hit earlier this month, killed 33 people and a billion native animals nationally and destroyed 2,500 homes and a wilderness area the size of South Korea.

The damage was most devastating in New South Wales state. Among the 25 people killed there were 19 civilians, three local volunteer firefighters and three U.S. firefighters.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who thanked those who fought the blazes and honored those who died, spoke of “children kissing the coffins of their fathers” and “mothers who should have never had to bury their children”.

He told the public, gathered around lit candles, of “a summer where the dark sky turned black and sunsets only signaled another night of terror, where the fire crashed on our beaches from the bush that surrounded them”.

Morrison has drawn public anger for his refusal to directly link the bushfires to climate change, insisting removing flammable vegetation is “just as important, if not more”.

His management of the fires also came under criticism over the unusually prolonged summer wildfire season, when he was forced into a rare public apology for taking a holiday to Hawaii.

Last week, he said Australia would conduct a wide-ranging inquiry into the causes of the fires.

NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, who played a very public role during the crisis, said the season will be remembered as one of the most challenging, in which the loss of life was enormous.

“Each one of those is a story of grief, of profound loss, and great sadness, of lives cut short, and of families being changed forever,” Fitzsimmons said.

Six pairs of boots were placed to symbolize the lives of the three Australian volunteers and the three U.S. firefighters who died in NSW.

(Writing by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Sam Holmes)

Heavy rains bring both relief and new dangers to bushfire-hit Australia

By Sonali Paul and Jonathan Barrett

MELBOURNE/SYDNEY (Reuters) – A four-day downpour across Australia’s east coast has brought relief after months of devastating bushfires and years of drought, but also widespread storm damage and forecasts of more wild weather to come.

The weekend drenching represented the biggest sustained run of rainfall in Sydney and surrounding areas for 30 years, dousing some bushfires and replenishing depleted dams across New South Wales, the country’s most populous state.

Some rural areas received more rain in recent days than they had in the entirety of the past year – a startling and swift turnaround from the bushfires that have killed 33 people and ravaged large parts of the east coast.

“It’s amazing what the smell of the rain can do to people’s spirits,” Ben Shields, the mayor of the inland city of Dubbo, told Reuters on the phone.

Like many other rural towns, Dubbo has been beset by duststorms and subjected to water restrictions on the back of a three-year drought.

James Jackson, a sheep and cattle farmer in the drought-hit Guyra district some 500 kilometers (311 miles) north of Sydney, told Reuters the region was starting to turn green again.

“This one event won’t replenish the whole soil moisture profile. We’ll need a couple of these, but this is certainly a good start for those people who got it,” said Jackson, who is also the president of industry body NSW Farmers.

“I have two-year-old sheep who are seeing green grass for the first time.”

Bushfire warning signs were almost swamped by floods in several areas as the weekend rainfall cut power to tens of thousands of homes, caused travel chaos in Sydney and closed scores of schools for the start of the week.

Almost 400 millimeters (15.8 inches) of rain fell in the Sydney area and surrounding areas. The Warragamba Dam, which supplies about four-fifths of Sydney’s water, jumped from about 40% to above 60% full in just over a week, the state’s water authority said, shoring up water supplies for the city of 5 million.

The NSW Rural Fire Service’s Sydney headquarters has been reconfigured to respond to floods and storm damage because of the rapid shift in the weather threat.

WILDFIRES EXTINGUISHED

Parts of northern and inland NSW, along with southern Queensland, have been in drought since 2016, severely reducing river and dam levels while also creating the tinder-dry conditions that have fueled this season’s deadly bushfires.

The weekend rain extinguished some of the worst bushfires in NSW, including the Gospers Mountain ‘megafire’ in the Blue Mountains and the Currawon blaze on the south coast. Each burned for months, together razing more than 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) of bushland and destroying hundreds of homes.

In contrast, flood evacuation warnings have now been ordered for parts of the Conjola region, authorities said, where deadly fires razed dozens of homes on New Year’s Eve. Thunderstorms are forecast for NSW and neighboring Victoria state in coming days.

The rain has put some much-needed moisture into parched land months out from the all-important wheat-planting season which is crucial to the fortunes of Australia’s biggest crop.

Phin Ziebell, agribusiness economist at National Australia Bank, said the rain would also encourage farmers in the north-east state of Queensland to rebuild their stock numbers now they had water and feed.

“Some of the driest parts of Queensland have received a drenching, which will help pasture growth,” Ziebell said.

(Reporting by Sonali Paul in Melbourne and Jonathan Barrett in Sydney; additional reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Peter Cooney and Jane Wardell)

Australia receives bushfire reprieve with floods, battens down for cyclone

SYDNEY/MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Many Australians were experiencing a bittersweet break from the threat of bushfires on Thursday, with flooding rains deluging some parts of the eastern states and miners preparing for a tropical cyclone to hit the country’s iron ore heartland over the weekend.

The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) issued severe thunderstorm warnings for the southeast of Queensland state and a flood alert for more than 20 areas in New South Wales (NSW) after the start of heavy rainfall that is expected to continue for several days.

Warm, moist air feeding in from the east was bringing the rain, BOM forecaster Mike Funnell told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

“We are expecting those larger totals and heavier rainfall to come into the northeast coast of NSW and then sort of track slowly southwards,” he said.

Cricket Australia said a bushfire fundraising match which was set to be played in Sydney on Saturday had to be rescheduled for Melbourne on Sunday because of the rain.

Miners Rio Tinto and BHP Group said they were monitoring the situation and making preparations ahead of Saturday, when a tropical low off the coast of Western Australia is forecast to develop into a category three cyclone that was set to make landfall in the Pilbara area.

“With strong winds and heavy seas predicted, both Port Walcott (Cape Lambert) and Dampier ports are being cleared, as this impacts the ability to safely moor vessels,” Rio said.

“We have also started the process of demobilizing non-essential people from our sites which may be affected by the weather system,” it said in a statement.

The wet weather has helped douse or slow some of the country’s most damaging and long-running wildfires, which have burned through more than 11.7 million hectares (2.8 million acres) of land since September. The prolonged bushfire season has killed 33 people and an estimated 1 billion native animals. More than 2,500 homes have been destroyed.

Officials, however, have warned the threat was not yet over and that there will likely be weeks more of firefighting ahead.

Around 60 fires were still burning across NSW and Victoria, the country’s most populous states, with around half of those classified as uncontained.

(Reporting by Paulina Duran in Sydney and Melanie Burton in MELBOURNE; Editing by Jane Wardell and Lincoln Feast)

Australia defends choice of remote detention center to house locals evacuated from Wuhan

Australia defends choice of remote detention center to house locals evacuated from Wuhan
By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia’s conservative government on Thursday defended its decision to use a detention center thousands of kilometers from the mainland to quarantine locals evacuated from Wuhan, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in China.

Australia on Wednesday said it would evacuate “isolated and vulnerable” locals from Wuhan as part of a joint operation with New Zealand.

Some health officials have criticized the decision to move those people to Christmas Island – about 2,600km (1,616 miles) from Australia and that had been used to hold thousands of refugees between 2002 and 2018.

Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton said Australia has no other choice.

“The reality is people need to be accommodated for somewhere for up to 14 days. I can’t clear out a hospital in Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane,” Dutton told reporters in Canberra. “I don’t have a facility otherwise that we can quickly accommodate for what might be many hundreds of people and Christmas Island is purpose-built for exactly this scenario.”

The detention center on Christmas Island was reopened last year after a decade of being idled. It houses a Tamil family whom Australia wants to deport to Sri Lanka.

Australia, which has seven cases of coronavirus, said about 600 people have told the government they are in Wuhan, though Prime Minister Scott Morrison said it was not clear how many wanted to leave China.

Morrison said priority would be given to infants and elderly people.

On Thursday, the global death toll from the epidemic hit 170 people, while the number of infected patients rose to 7,711.

Australia’s defense of its policy came as several countries began isolating hundreds of citizens evacuated from Wuhan.

Nearly 200 Americans, mostly U.S. diplomats and their families, airlifted from Wuhan on Wednesday, will remain isolated at a U.S. military base in California for at least 72 hours of medical observation, public health officials said.

A second flight with Japanese evacuees from Wuhan landed in Japan on Thursday, with nine people showing symptoms of fever or coughing, broadcaster NHK reported. The first flight landed on Wednesday and at least one more is expected in coming days.

New Zealand on Thursday said it would charter an aircraft to assist citizens wanting to leave Wuhan.

(Reporting by Colin Packham. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

Heatwave and high winds threaten to reignite Australian wildfires

By Paulina Duran

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Swathes of southeast Australia were bracing on Thursday for a days-long heatwave that threatens to stoke bushfires that have been burning for months.

As firefighters and residents prepared for the heightened danger, the New South Wales (NSW) state government launched a six-month inquiry to examine both the causes of and response to this season’s deadly wildfires.

“We don’t want to waste the opportunity to take on board any recommendations we need to adopt ahead of the bushfire season this year … as we approach summer of 2021,” said Gladys Berejiklian, the premier of NSW.

NSW state has been one of the hardest hit by bushfires, which started earlier than usual in September. The blazes have burnt out more than 11.7 million hectares (117,000 sq km) across Australia’s most populous states, killing at least 33 people and about 1 billion animals, and destroying 2,500 homes.

Fire danger warnings were issued on Thursday for several areas in South Australia state, where temperatures were forecast to exceed 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) and winds were expected to reach 35 kph (22 mph).

Among them was Kangaroo Island, a popular tourist destination that has already been razed by fires that killed two people. After a day of heat, by early evening no new fires had emerged.

“On Friday, there will also be hot and windy conditions, however, some parts of the Island may experience rainfall from mid-morning,” the state’s fire service said.

“A total Fire Ban is in place on the island, with a rating of SEVERE.”

In Victoria state, authorities issued a watch and act warning for people near Bendoc in the Snowy Mountains close to the New South Wales border.

“Don’t wait, leaving now is the safest option – conditions may change and get worse very quickly. Emergency Services may not be able to help you if you decide to stay,” emergency services officials said.

The severe heat and high winds are forecast to hit NSW and Victoria states from Friday threatening to spark new life into some of the 87 fires burning across the three states or create new blazes.

Australia’s dangerous summer weather has largely been driven by temperature variations in the Indian Ocean, which the country’s weather bureau said on Thursday were likely to keep conditions hot and dry until March.

Martin Webster, a NSW Rural Fire Service officer, highlighted the strains facing the state’s 74,000-strong volunteer brigade as the huge fires continued to burn.

“Our local crews have been actively involved in firefighting since August and we are still long way from being out of the woods, so we are talking six or seven months of firefighting,” Webster told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

Here are Thursday’s key events in the bushfire crisis:

* There were five fires burning in the state of South Australia, 64 in New South Wales and 18 in Victoria.

* Berejiklian, firefighting officials and family of three U.S. firefighters killed in a plane crash in remote bushland last week, attended a memorial service where members of the aviation community paid their respects.

* Three firefighters who were trying to contain blazes in the Orroral Valley near Canberra were reported injured after a tree fell on their truck on Wednesday night, the ABC reported. Officials in the capital did not immediately return requests for information.

* Rating agency Moody’s on Wednesday warned increasingly frequent and severe natural disasters related to climate change would likely put at risk the ‘AAA’ credit rating of NSW.

(Reporting by Paulina Duran in Sydney; Additional reporting by Colin Packham and Melanie Burton.; Editing by Jane Wardell, Lincoln Feast and Alison Williams)