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A cleaner wearing a protective suit sanitizes seats at the San Paolo stadium ahead of the second leg of the Coppa Italia semi-final between Napoli and Inter Milan, which has since been postponed as part of measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak, in Naples, Italy.CIRO DE LUCA/Reuters

The Italian government has ordered all schools and universities closed until at least March 15 and is preparing a series of draconian social measures, including a ban on shaking hands and attending soccer games, in an attempt to slow the rapid spread of COVID-19.

The school closings are being seen largely as an admission that efforts to contain the disease in Northern Italy, the epicentre of the outbreak in Europe, are not succeeding.

The directive was issued shortly after the World Health Organization alarmed health authorities and COVID-19 patients everywhere by revealing that the mortality rate of the disease is 3.4 per cent. The previous estimate was 2 per cent.

Northern Italy closed schools and universities – and banned large public gatherings – 10 days ago, after placing 11 towns in the region of Lombardy, most of them near Milan, into quarantine. Those towns and their 50,000 residents remain in lockdown, and others may soon be added to the “red zone" list of sealed-off areas.

Coronavirus guide: The latest news on COVID-19 and the toll it’s taking around the world

The nationwide school closing is a delayed response to the outbreak, whose infection rate has surged in recent days. At last count, Italian health services had confirmed more than 2,700 cases and 107 deaths, up from 80 Tuesday and all of them elderly patients. (The figures exclude the 15 cases in San Marino, the landlocked microstate in north-central Italy.) China, Hong Kong and Japan closed all their schools in an attempt to slow the coronavirus spread, and France has closed schools in two regions.

“We wanted to adopt all possible measures to obtain either the direct containment of the virus or a slowing down of its spread,” Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said.

The school closings in China appear to have inspired Rome to expand the shutdown. China’s infection rate fell steadily after Wuhan, the epicentre of the global outbreak, and other cities went into quarantine. The WHO said Tuesday that, in the previous 24 hours, only 129 new cases were reported in China, the lowest number since Jan. 20. On Wednesday, there were only 120 new Chinese cases.

By Wednesday, the number of confirmed cases worldwide had risen to almost 94,250, with 3,160 deaths, the vast majority in China. Iran has reported 92 deaths, though the true figure is widely thought to be higher. Italy is the third-hardest-hit country, followed by South Korea. COVID-19 has now reached at least 75 countries, though the WHO has yet to declare it a pandemic.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus highlighted the danger of the virus by saying that the mortality rate of seasonal influenza is far less than 1 per cent. “While many people have built up immunity to seasonal flu strains, COVID-19 is a new virus to which no one has immunity,” he said from Geneva. “That means more people are susceptible to infection and some will suffer severe disease.”

COVID-19 cases continued to spread across Europe Wednesday, with the United Kingdom’s Health Department reporting 85 cases, up 34 in a day. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said some patients with the virus would be better off at home than in the hospital and that the National Health Service would expand the number of home ventilation kits. The country’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, told the BBC that a handshake ban is being considered along with other measures, “some of which will be very socially disruptive."

Italy was drafting a decree Wednesday that would ban public events across the country, close cinemas and theatres and insist that Italians avoid shaking hands, hugging and greeting one another with cheek kisses. The decree, which was seen by Reuters, orders “the suspension of events of any nature … that entail the concentration of people and do not allow a safety distance of a least one metre to be respected.”

The ban extended to sporting events, including the Serie A soccer league, which will be forced to play games before empty stadiums until at least April 3.

Massimo Galli of Milan’s Luigi Sacco hospital, one of Italy’s leading infectious disease experts, said on Italian radio Wednesday that it would be “science fiction” for the country to return to normal quickly.

The economic turmoil unleashed by the virus is already severe and could get worse. Germany’s Lufthansa, one of the world’s biggest airlines, has grounded 150 planes, about a fifth of its fleet, as passengers cancel bookings and flights to virus hot spots such as Northern Italy are curtailed.

Airline shares are in near free fall, and some of the weaker airlines are expected to go bankrupt. Lufthansa has lost 20 per cent since last month, taking its loss in the past year to 45 per cent.

Governments and central banks are taking measures to limit the economic damage, prop up stock markets and prevent a funding crisis among companies that don’t have the financial resources to endure a sudden economic slowdown. The Italian government this week announced a €3.6-billion ($5.4-billion) economic stimulus package to help hard-hit regions. On Tuesday, the U.S. Federal Reserve cut interest rates by half a percentage point, and the Bank of Canada did the same on Wednesday.

Many economists said the hefty rate cuts will do little to protect the economy even if investors were to greet the moves by pushing up share values. Louis-Philippe Rochon, a professor of economics at Ontario’s Laurentian University, said “lowering rates is all about whipping markets into a frenzy” and will do nothing to fix the supply-chain problems that are hurting companies as products made in China and elsewhere go missing.

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