Concerns about the coronavirus outbreak’s threat to the world economy grew Saturday, even after President Donald Trump denounced criticism of his response to the threat as a “hoax” cooked up by his political enemies.
China’s manufacturing plunged in February by an even wider margin than expected after efforts to contain the virus shut down much of the world’s second-largest economy, an official survey showed.
The survey, coming as global stock markets fall sharply on fears that the virus will spread abroad, adds to mounting evidence of the vast cost of the disease that emerged in central China in December and its economic impact worldwide.
The list of countries touched by the virus has climbed to nearly 60, with new cases reported Saturday in Lebanon, Croatia, The Netherlands and Ecuador. More than 85,000 people worldwide have contracted the virus, with deaths topping 2,900.
Many cases have been relatively mild, and some of those infected are believed to show no symptoms at all. But that can allow for easier spread, and concern is mounting that prolonged quarantines, supply chain disruptions and a sharp reduction in tourism and business travel could weaken the global economy or even cause a recession.
The monthly purchasing managers’ index issued by the Chinese statistics agency and an industry group fell to 35.7 from January’s 50 on a 100-point scale on which numbers below 50 indicate activity contracting.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced a 270 billion yen ($2.5 billion) emergency economic package to help fight the virus. Abe said at a news conference that Japan is at critical juncture to determine whether the country can keep the outbreak under control ahead of the Tokyo summer Olympics.
Abe, whose announcement this past week of a plan to close all schools for more than a month through the end of the Japanese academic year sparked public criticism, said the emergency package includes financial support for parents and their employers affected by the closures.
“Frankly speaking, this battle cannot be won solely by the efforts of the government,” Abe said Saturday. “We cannot do it without understanding and cooperation from every one of you, including medical institutions, families, companies and local governments.”
As governments scrambled to control the spread and businesses wrestled with interruptions, researchers working to better understand the disease reported that the death rate may be lower than initially feared as more mild cases are counted.
A study by Chinese researchers published Friday in the New England Journal of Medicine analyzing 1,099 patients at more than 500 hospitals throughout China calculated a death rate of 1.4%, substantially lower than earlier studies that focused on patients in Wuhan, where it started and has been most severe.
Assuming there are many more cases with no or very mild symptoms, “the case fatality rate may be considerably less than 1%,” U.S. health officials wrote in an editorial in the journal.
That would make the new virus more like a severe seasonal flu than a disease similar to its genetic cousins SARS, severe acute respiratory syndrome, or MERS, Middle East respiratory syndrome.
Despite anxieties about a wider outbreak in the U.S., Trump has defended measures taken and lashed out at Democrats who have questioned his handling of the threat.
At a political rally Friday night in North Charleston, South Carolina, Trump asserted that Democratic complaints about his handling of the virus threat are “their new hoax,” echoing similar past complaints by the president about the Russia investigation and his impeachment.
Trump accused Democrats of “politicizing” the coronavirus threat and boasted about preventive steps he’s ordered in an attempt to keep the virus from spreading across the United States.
Shortly before Trump began to speak, health officials confirmed a second case of the virus in the U.S. in a person who didn’t travel internationally or have close contact with anyone who had the virus.
The outbreak’s spread around the globe has led to shuttered holy sites, canceled classes and changes to the daily lives of millions.
Iran is preparing for the possibility of “tens of thousands” of people getting tested for the virus as the number of confirmed cases spiked again Saturday, an official said, underscoring the fear both at home and abroad over the outbreak in the Islamic Republic.
The virus and the COVID-19 illness it causes have killed 43 people out of 593 confirmed cases in Iran, Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said. The new toll represents a jump of 205 cases — a 150% increase from the 388 reported the day before.
Earlier Saturday, Bahrain barred public gatherings for two weeks and threatened legal prosecution against travelers who came from Iran and hadn’t been tested for the virus.
Saudi Arabia has closed off Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina to foreign pilgrims, disrupting travel for thousands of Muslims already headed to the kingdom and potentially affecting plans later this year for millions more ahead of the fasting month of Ramadan and the annual hajj pilgrimage.
Even in isolated, sanctions-hit North Korea, leader Kim Jong Un called for stronger anti-virus efforts to guard against COVID-19, saying there will be “serious consequences” if the illness spreads to the country.
China has seen a slowdown in new infections and on Saturday morning reported 427 new cases over the past 24 hours along with 47 additional deaths. The city at the epicenter of the outbreak, Wuhan, accounted for the bulk of both. The ruling party is striving to restore public and business confidence and avert a deeper economic downturn and politically risky job losses after weeks of disruptions due to the viral outbreak.
South Korea, the second hardest hit country, reported 813 new cases Saturday — the highest daily jump since confirming its first patient in late January and raising its total to 3,150.
Streets were deserted in the city of Sapporo on Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido, where a state of emergency was issued until mid-March. Seventy cases — the largest from a single prefecture in Japan — have been detected in the island prefecture.
In France, the archbishop of Paris advised parish priests not to administer communion by placing the sacramental bread in the mouths of worshippers. Instead, priests were told to place the bread in their hands. According to the Paris diocese, a priest tested positive for the virus Friday after returning from Italy.
The head of the World Health Organization on Friday announced that the risk of the virus spreading worldwide was “very high,” while U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the “window of opportunity” for containing the virus was narrowing.
In Asia, Tokyo Disneyland and Universal Studios Japan announced they would close, and events that were expected to attract tens of thousands of people were called off, including a concert series by the K-pop group BTS.
Tourist arrivals in Thailand are down 50% compared with a year ago, and in Italy — which has reported 888 cases, the most of any country outside of Asia — hotel bookings are falling and Premier Giuseppe Conte raised the specter of recession.
Economists have forecast global growth will slip to 2.4% this year, the slowest since the Great Recession in 2009, and down from earlier expectations closer to 3%. For the United States, estimates are falling to as low as 1.7% growth this year, down from 2.3% in 2019.