Spain's military, deployed across the coronavirus-ravaged country to disinfect nursing homes, have discovered residents dead in their beds, abandoned by ill or absent staff.

In the capital of Madrid, funeral homes have been ordered to suspend the collection of bodies due to a lack of protective equipment.

There's also no room in the city's morgues and local authorities have commandeered an ice-skating rink to provide urgent storage.

Spain has now passed China with the world's second-highest death toll, with 738 more fatalities on Wednesday alone bringing the tally to 3434.

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While that tragic number is still dwarfed by Italy, where 6820 are dead, Spanish authorities are failing to control the rapid spread of coronavirus and cases rose by 20 per cent overnight to 47,610.

A patient is transferred to a medicalised hotel during the Covid-19 outbreak in Madrid on March 24. Photo / AP
A patient is transferred to a medicalised hotel during the Covid-19 outbreak in Madrid on March 24. Photo / AP

The union for nurses said Madrid's hospitals are "on the verge of collapse".

That almost unfathomable situation has unfolded just four weeks on from the first detections of coronavirus in Barcelona and Madrid on February 26.

The Spanish defence minister said staff at some rest homes had left after coronavirus was discovered, the BBC reports.

"The army, during certain visits, found some older people completely abandoned, sometimes even dead in their beds," said Spanish defence minister Margarita Robles.

Health officials said when the cause of death was linked to coronavirus, the bodies of deceased residents were left until properly equipped funeral services could collect them. In Madrid that could take up to 24 hours, as the capital had been hard hit.

Now, the country is in lockdown, hospitals are overflowing and authorities at all levels are only able to wait and pray that social distancing measures work.

"We are aware of just how hard it is to prolong this situation, but it is absolutely imperative that we keep fighting the virus in order to win this battle," Maria Jesus Montero, a government spokesperson, said at a press conference.

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The crisis is "testing Spanish society in the most unimaginable way", Montero said.

Across the country, police officers are patrolling streets and drones are whizzing through the air to find people breaking strict restrictions on free movement.

There's a mood of solidarity among Spaniards, who now take to their balconies each evening at 8pm to clap and cheer for doctors, nurses and paramedics.

People react from their balconies in support of the medical staff that are working in Barcelona, Spain on March 20. Photo / AP
People react from their balconies in support of the medical staff that are working in Barcelona, Spain on March 20. Photo / AP

But the mood generally remains sombre.

Hospitals are at breaking point and those on the frontline of the health crisis are now falling victim in large numbers, due to a shortage of protective equipment.

"The virus doesn't kill people … what's killing people is the system," Rafael Aguilera, mayor of Alcala del Valle in the country's northeast, said at a media conference this week.

"We need oxygen, ambulances and hospitals."

Spain's military has requested urgent international assistance from NATO, pleading for medical supplies as cases soar and the death toll rises.

Specifically, it has asked for 500,000 rapid testing kits, 450,000 respirators, 1.5 million surgical masks and 500 ventilators.

A massive convention centre in Madrid has been converted into a makeshift hospital to treat the mounting number of sick. Palacio del Hielo ice rink is being turned into a temporary morgue – its cold conditions necessary to preserve bodies.

A hearse van enters Madrid's ice rink turned into a temporary morgue due the Covid-19 crisis in Spain on March 24. Photo / AP
A hearse van enters Madrid's ice rink turned into a temporary morgue due the Covid-19 crisis in Spain on March 24. Photo / AP

Until this week, Madrid accounted for half of Spain's total confirmed cases of coronavirus. On Tuesday, officials released new data that shows it's now one-third, indicating the spread of the disease throughout the country.

Italy has been at the centre of Europe's coronavirus crisis for weeks, with 57,521 people infected and 6820 dead.

But there was some rare positive news for Italians overnight, with the rate of infection slowing for a fourth consecutive day, indicating that social distancing measures are working.

''This is an extremely positive factor,'' Ranieri Guerra, World Health Organisation assistant director general, told Radio Capital on Wednesday.

''In some regions we are close to the falling point of the curve and therefore probably the peak could be reached this week and then fall. I believe that this week and the first days of the next will be crucial.''

Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website

Although, Italians have been resistant to the lockdown that looks to be saving lives and police have so far charged almost 100,000 citizens for breaching strict measures.

In Messina in Sicily, the voice of the city's mayor Cateno De Luca booms through speakers on drones that fly overhead, yelling: "What the hell are you doing outside? You don't go out! That is the mayor's order and that's that, I'll get you one-by-one."

Like in Spain, Italy's hospitals are at breaking point.

Most have run out of protective equipment for the doctors and nurses working around the clock to treat the sick and dying, and 5000 medical workers have contracted coronavirus.

Those at the frontline have had to face some stark decisions in recent weeks.

"Right now, in Lombardy, we do not have free beds in intensive care units," Lorenzo Casani, the health director of a clinic for elderly people in Lombardy, told Time magazine.

"[Doctors] have to make this horrible choice and decide who is going to survive and who is not going to survive … who is going to get a monitor, a respirator and the attention they need."

Yesterday, French President Emmanuel Macron praised the country's medical workers in a national address and called for the country to pull together.

In this photo provided by the French Army, military doctors work in the military field hospital in Mulhouse on March 25. The Grand Est region is now the epicentre of the outbreak in France. Photo / AP
In this photo provided by the French Army, military doctors work in the military field hospital in Mulhouse on March 25. The Grand Est region is now the epicentre of the outbreak in France. Photo / AP

"I said we are engaged in a war against an invisible enemy, the Covid-19 virus," Macron said.

"When you are engaged in a war, you are mobilised, united. I see in our country elements of division, doubt, those who want to split the country when we should have one objective and that is to be united to fight the virus."

There are now 25,233 confirmed cases of coronavirus in France and 1331 have died. The death toll rose by 231 in a single day on Tuesday.

Macron has been briefed by experts that the country's current nationwide lockdown could be required to continue for six weeks.

On Tuesday, health officials in Belgium confirmed that hospital admissions had soared by 50 per cent in a single day.

The European Union has called for a co-ordinated "true European crisis management centre" to be established to deal with the far-reaching health, social and economic ramifications of coronavirus.

The weeks, months and possibly years ahead will be difficult.

The immediate focus is on slowing the spread, of flattering the curve, and bolstering medical capabilities.

When the immediate risk has eased, whenever that may be, attention will turn to rebuilding economies that have been decimated.

The World Trade Organisation has projected that the pandemic will create an economic nightmare across the continent that's more severe than that experienced during the Global Financial Crisis.