Spain extended its coronavirus lockdown on Thursday to at least April 12 as Europe's second-worst hit country fought "a real war" procuring medical supplies in an overheated Chinese market that officials said was rife with fraud and speculative deals.
The death toll rose by 655 overnight to 4,089. That was down from 738 deaths the previous day when Spain overtook China by the total number of deaths since the outbreak began. Health Minister Salvador Illa cautiously told parliament the data "make us think we are starting a stabilization phase".
The number of coronavirus cases rose by 18 percent to 56,188, a slower pace than in the past few days, but health emergency chief Fernando Simon said that the start of mass testing for the virus would certainly boost new notifications of infections.
"We are in a real war to get hold of ventilators, facemasks and quick test kits," government spokeswoman Maria Jesus Montero told Telecinco television.
"All the countries are fighting to secure domestic production, fighting to get supplies from China," she said, adding that suppliers were failing to deliver on time. The government was also working to guarantee domestic production by converting some of the industry's capacity.
Spain has ordered 432 million euros ($471.4 million) of masks, gloves and testing kits from China, and has turned to NATO partners for protective gear and ventilators.
A diplomatic source told Reuters prices had gone up ten-fold in some cases and Chinese firms were demanding payment upfront. A health authority source said there were queues of aircraft in some Chinese airports just to buy such supplies and middle-men often defrauded buyers.
Spanish officials did not identify any of the unscrupulous sellers by name, but said they were usually smaller, private firms, so Spain was seeking long-term deals with reputable companies.
Parliament voted in the early hours of Thursday to extend emergency measures - including the lockdown that has seen people confined to their homes except for essential trips for food, medicine and work.
"It is not easy to extend the state of emergency," Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez told parliament. "I am convinced the only efficient option against the virus is social isolation."
Although the largest opposition party, the conservative People's Party, supported the measure, its leader Pablo Casado chastised Sanchez for what he described as a late and inadequate response, particularly the government's failure to provide medical professionals with vital equipment.
While Spain's death toll is still well below Italy's 7,503, it has been rising at a faster pace lately, having soared 10-fold since Spain declared the state of emergency on March 14.
In Madrid, Spain's worst affected region, hearses continued to arrive at the city's ice rink, which was converted into a makeshift morgue after authorities said existing facilities lacked resources.
Nursing homes, whose elderly residents are highly vulnerable to the disease, have been particularly hard hit.
An analysis by radio network Cadena Ser found at least 397 residents of such homes had died from coronavirus, nearly 10 percent of the country's latest death toll. The health ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the findings.
Carmen Flores, head of patient rights group Defensor del Paciente, said the number "appears correct", urging the health ministry to provide its own data.
"Old people have been abandoned in an astonishing way," she said.