BERLIN (AP) — Strict new controls to slow the spread of the coronavirus froze traffic at global borders Tuesday, idling trucks in columns more than 30 miles long at some European crossings, while masked security officers turned back travelers at others.
The moves by officials bent on protecting their citizens raised new questions about how to maintain supplies of food, medical equipment and other goods in coming weeks that will be critical to nations in lockdown.
Word of the border closings fanned growing fears in Europe, prompting widespread hoarding.“There is enough for everybody,” German Agriculture Minister Julia Kloeckner said, castigating people for spreading panic by posting fake reports that supermarkets would be closing. “I’m certain we will weather this society-wide situation well, so long as we behave as a society.”
The moves come as caseloads in Spain and Italy — where more than 2,500 deaths now account for a third of world’s total — continued to spiral. Worldwide, the number of cases topped 190,000.
In the U.S., retailers and food companies scrambled to ramp up production after two weeks of panic-purchasing by shoppers. Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, and supermarket chains like Wegman’s, cut store hours to give workers time to restock shelves.
To help speed shipments, U.S. officials suspended rules Tuesday capping the road time of truckers who are hauling food or emergency medical supplies.
The shortages come despite the fact that much of the food Americans consume is produced domestically and does not need to be moved across borders. But that has done little to quell fears that have emptied stores of items ranging from garlic to paper towels.
“I don’t think anyone has seen anything like this ... certainly not in this country,” said Per Hong, an executive at the management consulting firm, Kearney.
In Britain, where officials had resisted stringent measures to curb the virus, new research on the virus prompted a dramatic escalation Tuesday. A study by Imperial College London estimated that the virus could kill 250,000 people in the United Kingdom and more than 1 million in the U.S., unless officials took action to stop its spread.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson told people to eliminate unnecessary contact with others, work from home where possible and avoid bars, restaurants, theaters and other venues. Schools remained opened for the time being. Some scientists, though, said the government should have taken action sooner.
The European Union also issued guidelines aimed at facilitating the flow of critical goods like food and medicine, while helping individual nations restrict non-essential travel in an effort to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
But on Tuesday it was chaos on many borders, with traffic backed up for dozens of kilometers (miles).
“We are all desperate, cold and sleepless here for a third day,” said Janina Stukiene, who was stuck in Lithuania on the border with Poland with her husband and son. “We just want to go home.”
The line of cars and trucks in Lithuania was some 60 kilometers (37 miles) long after Poland closed its border, while similar traffic jams could be seen on the borders with Germany and the Czech Republic.
Lithuania was sending military airplanes and special trains to Germany to help hundreds of its citizens stranded at the crossing points with Poland.
To try to help citizens from Estonia and Lithuania get home following closure of the Polish border, German police organized a convoy of vehicles to a ferry port on one of its Baltic Sea islands.
Estonia, meantime, commissioned a ferry large enough for 2,500 passengers to fetch Estonians and Latvians unable to transit Poland to return home from Germany.
French President Emmanuel Macron, who had a phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU officials, called for “intensifying European coordination and quickly taking effective and concerted action.” He condemned unilateral border control measures by some member states within the EU, according to his office.
Like Germany, France insists the free flow of goods must be guaranteed and cross-border commuting for work should be allowed.
Germany launched a 50 million euro ($56 million) effort to bring home thousands stranded in popular winter vacation spots across the globe, including up to 5,000 in Morocco alone.
“Even if we will do everything humanly possible, we cannot in every case provide a solution within 24 hours,” Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned.