Race for space to house vulnerable in coronavirus

By Zoe Tabary

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – “Stay home” – that’s the message stretching from Italy to Iran as the world tries to contain coronavirus. But what if you’ve got no place to call home, or your house is out of bounds in the pandemic?

Some 1.8 billion people worldwide are homeless or live in inadequate housing, experts say, calling for urgent measures to ensure the most vulnerable get sanctuary in the outbreak.

Thousands more need a temporary place to live, either to stay close to crisis centres at the core of the coronavirus fightback or to keep housemates infection-free during weeks of lockdown.

Worldwide, the respiratory disease – which emerged last year in China – has infected more than 490,000 people and the death toll tops 22,000, according to Johns Hopkins University.

“Housing has become the front line defence against the coronavirus, said Leilani Farha, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing. “Home has rarely been more of a life or death situation.”

To that end, officials are scouring cities for vacant spaces or disused buildings to turn into makeshift homes.

From empty motels to festival halls, conference centres to cottages – buildings are being repurposed at breakneck speed, with the homeless a top priority.

“Housing, not handcuffs or forced congregate sheltering, for those experiencing homelessness, is the way to best ensure we all remain safer,” Eric Tars, of the U.S. National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty, said in a statement.

SHELTER

In Italy, which has registered more than 7,500 deaths from the virus – it is the world’s worst hit country – some rail stations are doubling up as centres offering shelter and wash rooms.

Alessandro Radicchi, who runs the Binario 95 shelter in Rome’s central train station, said police were now routinely stopping homeless people, saying they could pay a fine for wandering the streets without proof of residence.

“You can imagine how a homeless person who feels alone during an ordinary time, now really feels there is no one,” Radicchi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

The centre supports about 70 people daily but can only sleep 12, Radicchi said, adding that the Italian capital has more than 40,000 people living without adequate housing but only 1,000 beds in homeless shelters.

“We cannot host all of them. But we tell them, ‘when you go in the street, remember these things like keep the mask and don’t touch anything if you don’t have to’,” he explained.

Officials expect the crisis to have an outsized impact on the homeless, who often make do without sanitation or food, bed down in close quarters and suffer more underlying illnesses.

For the millions of poor and daily wage workers in India, the threat of hunger and a lack of shelter looms larger than that of the deadly coronavirus, which has prompted the government to lock down the country until mid-April.

Since the shutdown began on Wednesday night, homeless shelters have filled with migrant workers and labourers who have lost their livelihoods and so cannot afford food or a bed.

ISOLATION

In the Canadian city of Montreal, a former hospital is this week being transformed into an isolation facility for homeless people exhibiting symptoms of coronavirus.

Patients will be kept in individual rooms in a building that sits at the top of a hill, tested for the virus and quarantined should they test positive, said a spokesman for the regional health agency, with capacity that can go up to 150 beds.

In London, the government will open a temporary hospital at the cavernous ExCel exhibition centre in east London, installing ventilators and beds in what was once an Olympic sporting venue.

U.S. communities have taken things into their own hands.

In California, a collective of homeless people and others whose housing is insecure have occupied six vacant, state-owned homes in the Los Angeles area.

“Letting hundreds of homes sit empty during a pandemic poses a health hazard to those like us — those who lack stable housing,” the Reclaiming Our Homes collective wrote on Facebook.

JUST A BED

Cities are also scrambling to help hard-pressed healthcare staff – working flat out and often without transport networks – with well-placed home owners opening up their flats for free.

As the virus decimates tourism, hotels and holiday lets are also sitting empty, prompting rental company Airbnb to open pages in Italy and France to connect medics with hosts.

“Doctors and nurses were requested to move from one city to another to support hospitals with exploding intensive care units. It was our desire to support … these heroes,” said Airbnb’s general manager in Italy, Giacomo Trovato.

He said the firm would pay hosts a minimum rate of about 10 euros a night and cover cleaning and fees for up to two months.

More than 2,000 homeowners and 180 doctors and nurses signed up within days of the launch, he said by phone.

Europe’s largest hotel group Accor said on Tuesday it had created a platform to offer housing to medical staff, and would offer up to 2,000 beds in 40 hotels for the homeless.

Such measures will be even more pressing as the virus digs into poorer countries where densely populated slum neighbourhoods create ideal conditions for disease transmission.

“COVID-19 is likely to spread at an even faster rate in informal settlements than elsewhere and with more disastrous consequences,” Farha said via WhatsApp.

“A ‘stay at home’ policy fails to recognise the conditions in informal settlements that make staying at home just as deadly, if not more, than no policy at all,” she said.

(Reporting by Zoe Tabary @zoetabary in London, Thin Lei Win @thinkink in Rome, Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi in Tbilisi, Annie Banerji @anniebanerji in Delhi and Jillian Kestler-D’Amours @jkdamours in Montreal, editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

UK calls in army and warns people to stay home or face lockdown

By Kate Holton and Sarah Young

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain sent in the army to deliver protective equipment to hospitals on Monday and told people to stay at home and heed warnings over social distancing or the government would bring in more extreme measures to stop the coronavirus spread.

With some doctors saying they felt like “cannon fodder”, the government said the military would help ship millions of items of personal protective equipment (PPE) including masks to healthcare workers who have complained of shortages.

So far, 281 Britons have died from coronavirus and, in the last few days, British authorities have rapidly stepped up action to try to limit the spread of the disease and prevent a repeat of the death toll seen in other countries where thousands have died.

However, there have been complaints from frontline medical staff about shortages of kit, saying they did not feel safe at work. In a letter pleading with Prime Minister Boris Johnson to increase PPE supplies, more than 6,000 frontline doctors said they were being asked to put their lives at risk with out-of-date masks, and low stocks of equipment.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock admitted there had been issues but promised action was being taken. He said the army would drive trucks throughout the day and night to get supplies to medical staff.

“It’s like a war effort, it is a war against this virus and so the army have been incredibly helpful in getting those logistics so we can get the supplies to protect people on the front line,” he told the BBC, saying the health service now had 12,000 ventilators, 7,000 more than at the start of the crisis.

Britain has brought in a series of measures to try to curb the spread of the virus.

On Monday, a much-reduced rail service was introduced and jury trials were suspended, coming days after Johnson advised Britons to work from home if possible and ordered the closure of pubs, gyms and leisure centers.

ADVICE IGNORED

But advice to stay at home and avoid social gatherings went unheeded by millions at the weekend who took advantage of sunny weather to flocked to parks and beauty spots over the weekend, ignoring instructions to stay 2 meters (6 feet) apart.

Emyr Williams, chief executive of the Snowdonia National Park Authority in Wales, said the past 24 hours had been unprecedented.

“We have experienced the busiest visitor day in living memory. The area has been overwhelmed with visitors,” he said.

The government warned that Britain would face a shutdown with curfews and travel restrictions if people continued to flout the advice.

“Well, we’re perfectly prepared to do that if we need to because the objective here is really clear which is to stop the spread of the virus. Of course we will enforce and bring in further strong measures if we need to,” Hancock told Sky News.

The government was also pondering whether to close all non-essential retail shops, the BBC’s political editor reported.

Some firms have already acted because of slowing demand, with clothing retailer Primark and department store John Lewis saying on Monday they would temporarily close all of their shops.

It comes as Britain opened the first part of a 330 billion pound ($384 billion) loan guarantee scheme for businesses , which will help small and medium-sized firms borrow up to 5 million pounds to deal with coronavirus stoppages.

(Additional reporting by Costas Pitas and David Milliken; Writing by Michael Holden; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Alison Williams)

‘We are at war’: France imposes lockdown to combat virus

By Michel Rose and Richard Lough

PARIS (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday ordered stringent restrictions on people’s movement to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and said the army would be drafted in to help move the sick to hospitals.

France had already shut down restaurants and bars, closed schools and put ski resorts off limits, but Macron said measures unprecedented in peacetime were needed as the number of infected people doubled every three days and deaths spiraled higher.

In a somber address to the nation, the president said that from Tuesday midday (1100 GMT) people should stay at home unless it was to buy groceries, travel to work, exercise or for medical care.

Anyone flouting the restrictions, in place for at least the next two weeks, would be punished.

“I know what I am asking of you is unprecedented but circumstances demand it,” Macron said.

“We’re not up against another army or another nation. But the enemy is right there: invisible, elusive, but it is making progress.”

He said tougher action was needed after too many people ignored earlier warnings and mingled in parks and on street corners over the weekend, risking their own health and the wellbeing of others.

In France the coronavirus has killed 148 people and infected more than 6,600.

ARMY MOBILIZED

Under the new measures, soldiers would help transport the sick to hospitals with spare capacity and a military hospital with 30 intensive care beds would be set up in the eastern region of Alsace, where one of the largest infection clusters has broken out.

Macron said he was postponing the second round of local elections on Sunday. Because the government’s sole focus needed to be fighting the pandemic, he said he was suspending his reform agenda, starting with his overhaul of the pension system.

The government would, when necessary, legislate by decree to fight the coronavirus, he said.

Coronavirus infections and fatalities in France and Spain have been surging at a pace just days behind that of Italy, the epicenter of the outbreak in Europe where hospitals in the worst-hit northern regions are stretched to breaking point.

Seeking to offer further reassurance to businesses, Macron said the government would guarantee 300 billion euros worth of loans. The loan guarantee plan would be submitted to parliament in coming weeks and would be retroactive, a finance ministry source said.

Rent and utility bills owed by small companies would also be suspended to help them weather the economic storm, he added.

“No French company, whatever its size, will be exposed to the risk of collapse,” Macron said.

(Reporting by Michel Rose and Benoit Van Overstraten; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Christian Lowe)