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Luxembourg braces for long siege, one more patient dies

Luxembourg braces for long siege, one more patient dies

by Heledd Pritchard and Julie Edde 6 min. 20.03.2020 From our online archive
Country urges neighbouring countries not to close borders
People have to keep a 2m distance as they wait outside pharmacies Photo: Lex Kleren
People have to keep a 2m distance as they wait outside pharmacies Photo: Lex Kleren

Luxembourg was readying for a protracted siege as it headed into its first weekend of national lockdown, saying it would build an emergency hospital to better cope with the corona epidemic, which it expects not to peak for up to another two weeks.

The number of known cases rocketed up again on Friday, to 484 - an almost 50% increase in just one day, and Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said one more patient had died, bringing the total to five.

"It is vital for everybody to stay home," Bettel said at a press conference on Friday. "It is a basic rule for everybody except for those who must go to work or in [case of] the other known .... exemptions," he said.

There was considerable confusion about the numbers during the day. In the morning, the government had reported more than 600 cases, but then revised that number down. This was because the numbers coming from the lab had erroneously been entered twice, the ministry said.

And Bettel first said that two more people had died but then reduced that number to one new fatality, after an aide handed him a note. The government later said that a sixth person had also died, but it was not clear whether the person was sick because of the virus.

Luxembourg has a high infection rate compared to other European countries. Yet the worst was yet to come, Health Minister Paulette Lenert told journalists on Thursday afternoon, judging from the numbers seen in other countries, where the growth of the epidemic is now slowing.

“We are expecting a peak ... in the two weeks to come,” Lenert said. “Infected people were mixing with others at the beginning so we are experiencing a similar trend to other countries.”

There are currently 16 corona patients in hospital, three of whom are in intensive care. A further 21 are in hospital waiting for their test results.

The government was setting up a temporary hospital next to the CHL hospital in Strassen, with material procured with the help of NATO's Luxembourg-based Supply and Procurement Agency, Bettel said.

Luxembourg cargo airline Cargolux was carrying "relief material" from a NATO base in Taranto, Italy, for the Luxembourg government aboard six charter flights, company spokeswoman Moa Sigurdardottir said. 

The shipments to Luxembourg "will serve to provide additional medical capacity to cope with the growing number of Covid-19 patients," she said in an email, but she provided no further details.

Taranto is home to the Southern Operations Centre, part of NATO's  supply arm, and stores supplies to rapidly build facilities for up to 500 people, according to NATO's web site.

State of emergency

Bettel declared a state of emergency just two days ago, which allows his government to take urgent decisions without the need for parliament's approval. The country is on an almost complete lockdown as of last Monday, with shops and restaurants closed.

From next week, the country's Findel airport will also close for all passengers, though it will remain open for much-needed cargo flights.

People have been ordered to stay at home unless they need to buy food or have other urgent business, and most employers have told their staff to work remotely. People can still go for walks, but must keep two metres distance from each other, or risk a €145 fine on the spot. 

As some countries – in particular Germany – are now closely checking their borders, one of Luxembourg's biggest concerns is how to ensure cross-border healthcare staff can continue to travel into the country.

Some two-thirds of doctors and nurses in Luxembourg commute to work from abroad each day, and Deputy Prime Minister Dan Kersch urged the importance of keeping the borders open during a press conference on Thursday, echoing Bettel's earlier message to EU authorities.

"We need solidarity from our neighbouring countries to not close the borders, it's an essential issue for Luxembourg," he said this week.

People crossing the German border into Luxembourg need to show a certificate proving they work in the country before they are allowed in.

Even outside the healthcare sector, thousands of Luxembourg's workforce are non-residents. France and Belgium have now said those living there will be able to work from home for an unlimited period during the pandemic without being double taxed.

Industry cut-backs

Industry has also been hard hit, with Luxembourg-based steel giant ArcelorMittal saying on Thursday it will cut production in Europe. Its more than 3,800 employees in the country are waiting to hear whether all or most of them will be ordered to stay home.

Goodyear said this week it would close its tyre plants in Luxembourg, and a range of other European countries until at least 3 April. The Goodyear plant, offices and innovation centre in Colmar-Berg employ 3,450 people.

Luxembourg is now ending its fifth day of a virtually complete lockdown, with all restaurants, bars and non-essential shops closed. From Friday, the most vulnerable and at-risk will be able to do their food shopping via an online website and telephone hotline set up by the government to take orders and have items delivered to their home.

People will also be able to consult a doctor online via a new teleconsultation service.

More than 236,000 people have contracted the virus across the globe and it has claimed more than 9,800 lives, and the epicentre of the pandemic has shifted to Europe from China, where it originated.

China still has the highest number of total cases with 80,928, while Italy - a country whose population is 20 times smaller - has  41,035. And while only 34 new cases hit China between Wednesday and Thursday, in Italy, there were 5,322. In Spain, also heavily struck, there were 2,626.

The COVID-19 virus is a type of coronavirus. Other known strands include SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), both of which are more lethal.

The fourt fatalities Luxembourg had reported as of Thursday were all older than 80 years, Lenert said on Thursday, and had other conditions before falling ill with the virus. The average age of patients is 46.

As of Thursday, Luxembourg had found 7.7 corona infections per 10,000 inhabitants, more than Italy's 6.7 cases per 10,000. But Lenert said the country was also intensively testing, which could drive up the numbers. At the three new drive-through test centres that opened this week, 800 people had been tested on Wednesday alone.

(This story has been corrected to say that the emergency hospital will be built in Strassen, not in Kirchberg).

All national measures, information on health and safety precautions and what to do if you show symptoms are available on the government's COVID-19 website.

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