Schools shut, travel curbed as world races to fight coronavirus

Governments battling coronavirus epidemics from Iran to Australia shut schools, canceled big events and stocked up on medical supplies on Thursday in a race to contain the outbreak’s rapid global spread.

For the first time, new infections reported around the world surpassed those in mainland China, where the flu-like disease emerged two months ago from an illegal wildlife market but is on the decline after an aggressive containment campaign.

In Japan, where cases rose to 200, there was particular concern after a female tour bus guide tested positive for a second time – one of very few worldwide to do so.

Tokyo has halted big gatherings and sports events for two weeks, and is closing schools early for the spring break. But it still plans to go ahead with the 2020 Olympics, whose cancellation or relocation would be a massive blow for Japan.

The coronavirus has mainly battered China, causing 78,596 cases and 2,746 deaths. But it has spread to another 44 countries with 3,246 cases and 51 deaths reported.

Though meeting the dictionary definition of a pandemic – widespread contagion across a large region – the World Health Organization (WHO) has so far held back from using that term.

“This virus has pandemic potential,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters in Geneva. “This is not a time for fear. This is a time for taking action to prevent infection and save lives now.”

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MACRON: CRISIS COMING

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison ordered hospitals to ensure sufficient medical supplies, protective gear and staff. U.S. President Donald Trump put his vice president, Mike Pence, in charge of America’s response, while France’s President Emmanuel Macron rallied the nation.

“We have a crisis before us. An epidemic is on its way,” Macron said at a Paris hospital where a 60-year-old Frenchman this week became the second person to die from the coronavirus in France.

Germany, too, has warned of an impending endemic. And Greece, which is a gateway for refugees from the Middle East and beyond, announced tighter border controls, with particular attention on islands used by migrants.

Spooked by the impact on China, the heart of corporate supply chains, and the increasing effect on other countries, stocks sank deeper into the red and oil prices fell.

Global markets have dropped for six straight days, wiping out more than $3.6 trillion in value.

“All of us are very worried about what is currently happening with respect to the spread of the coronavirus,” European Central Bank (ECB) executive board member Isabel Schnabel said during a speech in London.

Klaas Knot, seen as one the ECB’s most hawkish members, also expressed concern but noted that after the 2002-03 SARS epidemic, also originating in China, its economy then rebounded to grow from the world’s sixth to its second biggest now.

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A rash of countries have had their first cases in recent days, the latest being Denmark with a man back from a ski holiday in Italy, and Estonia with someone returning from Iran.

There is no cure for the virus that can lead to pneumonia, and a vaccine may take up to 18 months to develop.

MISINFORMATION ‘EPIDEMIC’

Urging people to avoid unnecessary travel, Tehran extended its closure of cinemas, cultural events and conferences for another week. Iran’s outbreak has added to the isolation of a nation already under U.S. sanctions.

Desperate to stave off a probable recession, Italy warned that the “epidemic of misleading information” could do worse harm than the virus itself.

The coronavirus has played havoc with global aviation and tourism as airlines cancel flights, countries ban visitors from hot spots and nervous passengers put off travel.

The United States is managing 59 cases – most Americans repatriated from a cruise ship quarantined in Japan where almost 700 cases developed. But Trump said the risk was “very low” in the United States which was “very, very ready”.

Chinese authorities said the number of new deaths stood at 29 on Thursday, its lowest daily tally since Jan. 28. There were just 433 new cases in mainland China over the previous day, compared to 586 in nations and territories elsewhere.