WORLD: The World Health Organization (WHO) called the new coronavirus outbreak a pandemic yesterday (Mar 11), issuing a grim warning that the global spread and severity of the illness was due to “alarming levels of inaction”.
The call came as Europe faced a mounting number of cases - including a slew of new countries clocking first deaths - prompting governments to roll out increasingly tough measures to slow the rapid spread of the virus.
The number of cases across the globe has risen to more than 126,000 with 4,633 deaths, including a jump in fatalities particularly in Iran and Italy, according to an AFP tally.
The majority of cases have been in China where the outbreak first emerged in December, but as the number of new infections has steadied in the country, hotspots have emerged elsewhere, namely Italy, Iran and Spain.
The head of the UN’s top health body for the first time characterised the outbreak as a pandemic, meaning it is spreading in several regions through local transmission.
“We have never before seen a pandemic sparked by a coronavirus,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said yesterday, adding that the declaration would not change the organisation’s response to the outbreak.
“We’re deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction.”
He did not single out any nations for not doing enough - or what further measures were needed. He instead called on “countries to take urgent and aggressive action”.
Signs of a widening European crisis emerged yesterday, with Ireland, Albania, Belgium, Sweden and Bulgaria registering their first deaths, while Italy clocked more than 2,300 new cases in the last 24 hours and infections in Spain jumped by a quarter to more than 2,100.
The surge brought Europe’s total number of cases to more than 22,000, with 930 deaths.
Millions of people in Italy are grappling with a nationwide clampdown that has emptied streets, shuttered shops and disrupted train and air travel.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said yesterday that Italy would shut all stores except for pharmacies and food shops to curb the disease.
Factories and other big businesses can remain open as long as they adopt “appropriate security measures to prevent contagion,” Conte said.
His government vowed to spend up to 25 billion euros (892 billion baht) to help contain fallout from the pandemic, including cash injections for hard-hit hotels and restaurants and allowing families to suspend some mortgage payments.
Even places with no significant outbreaks like Poland and Ukraine announced school closures and other restrictive measures. Austria said it would shut museums and halt train services to and from Italy.
In the Middle East, hard-hit Iran reported 63 new deaths, its highest single-day toll which brought total fatalities to 354. It has yet to impose quarantines but has closed schools, universities and hotels and called on people not to travel.
WHO’s Tedros said the country, which has 9,000 cases, was “doing its best” to control the spread of the virus, but that it needed more supplies to cope.
Elsewhere, Kuwait said it was suspending all commercial flights in and out of the country, after it and other Gulf nations had already adopted travel restrictions.
Sliver of hope
Offering a sliver of hope to the rest of the world, China again announced negligible new daily infections and only a relatively small number of deaths.
Some businesses in China’s Hubei province, where the virus was first detected in December, were told they could restart work, reducing fears of a prolonged disruption of supply chains.
But China remains the worst-affected country with more than 80,000 confirmed cases and over 3,165 deaths.
Although Panama confirmed its first death Tuesday (Mar 10), Latin America, along with Africa and Oceania, has so far reported only small numbers of cases.
And the United States saw its first signs of an emergency footing with the New York city government forming a containment zone around a suburb at the centre of an outbreak.
Wall Street stocks suffered another brutal rout yesterday, pushing the Dow into a “bear market,” or 20% from its peak, after the latest series of event cancellations and company warnings rattled investors.
Trump declares Europe travel ban
US President Donald Trump announced yesterday the United States would ban all travel from Europe for 30 days starting to stop the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.
“To keep new cases from entering our shores, we will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days. The new rules will go into effect Friday at midnight,” Trump said in an address to the nation.
Disruption to supply chains from China, flagging demand and wildly fluctuating stock markets have sparked a series of profit warnings from companies and pushed governments into action.
The UK promised a US$39 billion (B1.2 trillion) fiscal stimulus and the central bank slashed its main interest rate to 0.25% following a similar move by the US Federal Reserve last week, intended to make borrowing cheaper and boost economic activity.
While markets remain uneasy, COVID-19 continued to rip up the schedules of musicians, sports stars and cultural figures as governments around the world banned large gatherings.
Shortly after Trump’s announcement, Tom Hanks confirmed he and his wife Rita Wilson have both tested positive for coronavirus.
Hanks, 63, said he and Wilson came down with a fever while in Australia, where he is reportedly filming a new movie about the life of Elvis Presley.
“To play things right, as is needed in the world right now, we were tested for the coronavirus, and were found to be positive,” he wrote in a statement posted to Instagram.
The pair will now be isolated and monitored, wrote Hanks.
“We’ll keep the world posted and updated,” he added, along with a photo of a surgical glove placed inside a biohazard trash bag.
Elsewhere, England’s top-flight football league saw its first cancellation with yesterday’s match between Arsenal and Manchester City postponed (see story here), while E3, the world’s premier video game trade show, due to be held in June in Los Angeles, was called off.
In an unprecedented move, NCAA officials yesterday closed the US national college basketball tournament to paying fans. The first games will be played next Tuesday (Mar 17).