Americans urged to wear masks as coronavirus death toll mounts around the world
Protective mask on young woman (Shutterstock)

The United States on Friday advised all Americans to wear masks in public to protect against the new coronavirus, fearing the illness that has infected more than one million people worldwide may be spreading by normal breathing.

President Donald Trump said the US government recommendation for all 330 million Americans to wear non-medical masks in places such as grocery stores would last "for a period of time."

"It's going to be really a voluntary thing," Trump told reporters. "You don't have to do it and I'm choosing not to do it, but some people may want to do it and that's okay."

US Surgeon General Jerome Adams said the decision came because many people with the virus were showing no symptoms but warned it was still vital to practice "social distancing" by maintaining space between people.

The announcement came after Anthony Fauci, who is leading the government's scientific response, backed recent scholarship that found SARS-CoV-2 can be suspended in the ultrafine mist let out when people exhale.

Since the virus was first identified in China, health experts have said that it is primarily spread through coughing and sneezing.

The World Health Organization has been more cautious, saying the airborne threat was only known to occur during certain medical treatments.

The US recommendation will likely worsen an already severe shortage of masks in the United States and Europe, which both rely heavily on imports from China.

Trump urged Americans to "just make something" or use scarves, saving clinical masks for health professionals and patients.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a national address ordered citizens to wear masks when going to markets and also banned anyone under 20 from going outside.

A number of local authorities in the United States had already recommended masks including Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, the country's virus epicenter.

"The only way we can cut the growth of this virus is to act as if we all have it," Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf said.

Rising tolls but hope in Europe

More than 53,000 people have died from COVID-19 since it was first detected late last year in China. The United States on Thursday recorded 1,169 COVID-19 fatalities, the highest in one day in any country, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally.

Worse may be coming as a quarter of global infections are in the United States, where Trump has warned of a "very, very painful" first two weeks of April.

Europe reached the dark milestone of 40,000 dead, with Spain on Friday reporting more than 900 deaths in the past 24 hours.

Spaniard Javier Lara survived after being put on oxygen in an overcrowded intensive care unit -- a shock to a 29-year-old who was athletic and doesn't smoke.

"I was panicking that my daughter would get infected. When I started showing symptoms, I said I wouldn't hold her or go near her," he said, describing facing death with an eight-week-old as the "worst moment" in his life.

But there were also signs the peak may be passing in Europe.

Hardest-hit Italy recorded 766 new deaths but its infections rose by just four percent, the lowest yet, according to the civil protection service.

"It's true that the latest figures, as high as they are, give us a little bit of hope, as the growth in new infections is slower than it was a few days ago," said Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, which is crediting with curbing the virus through especially strict social restrictions.

"But it is definitely much too early to see a clear trend in that, and it is certainly too early to think in any way about relaxing the strict rules we have given ourselves," she added.

'Worst yet to come'

Prosperous countries have borne the brunt of the disease, but there are fears of an explosion among the world's most vulnerable living in conflict zones or refugee camps.

"The worst is yet to come," UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said, referring to countries such as Syria, Libya and Yemen. "The COVID-19 storm is now coming to all these theaters of conflict."

The world economy has been pummelled by the virus and associated lockdowns, with the US economy shedding 701,000 jobs in March -- its worst showing since March 2009 in the wake of the subprime banking crisis. Even more dire figures are expected for April.

Financial ratings agency Fitch predicted the US and eurozone economies would shrink this quarter by up to 30 percent and the Asian Development Bank warned the global economy could take a $4.1 trillion hit -- equivalent to five percent of worldwide output.

Latin America is heading into a "deep recession" with an expected drop of 1.8 to 4.0 percent in GDP, according to the UN economic commission for the region.

China's central bank became the latest to announce special stimulus measures when it cut reserve requirements for smaller banks in order to release around 400 billion yuan ($56 billion) in liquidity.

New measures taken

In signs that the world wants to avoid a repeat of the crisis, the African country of Gabon said it was banning the sale and consumption of bats and pangolins, the critically endangered, scaly mammals.

Pangolins are heavily trafficked from Gabon to China, where their meat is considered a delicacy.

The novel coronavirus is believed to have come from bats, but researchers think it might have spread to humans via another mammal such as pangolins through an unsanitary meat market in Wuhan.

The virus has chiefly killed the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions, but recent deaths among teenagers and babies have highlighted the dangers for people of all ages.

In Spain, 34-year-old Vanesa Muro gave birth with COVID-19 and has been warned not to touch her newborn without wearing gloves and masks.

"It's hard," she told AFP. "He grabs your finger, the poor little thing, and holds onto the plastic, not on to you."