The World Health Organization declared the new coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic, as another surge in infections and fatalities intensified the health crisis in Italy and triggered a drastic new round of restrictions that essentially shut down the country’s entire economy.
In the U.S., President Donald Trump announced that the country will bar nearly all travel from continental Europe for 30 days, starting on Friday at midnight. In a televised address, Mr. Trump said the ban would not apply to Britain.
Canada will not be following the U.S. lead at this time, according to a spokesperson from the Prime Minister’s Office. The PMO did not say whether it would issue a travel warning to Canadians heading to the U.S. for March break.
The WHO said that the number of cases outside of China, where the outbreak started in December, had climbed 13-fold over two weeks. Globally, there are now 125,000 cases in 114 countries, and 4,585 deaths.
"We have called every day for countries to take urgent and aggressive action. We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a Wednesday press conference in Geneva in describing the seriousness of the outbreak.
“All countries can still change the course of this pandemic. If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace and mobilize their people in the response, those with a handful of cases can prevent those cases from becoming clusters and those clusters becoming from community transmission.”
On Wednesday night, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced the closing of all stores, except for pharmacies and food shops. Essential public services and farms will continue to operate. Until his announcement, coffee bars, restaurants and other shops could stay open, though under restricted hours and as long as customers respected the one-metre distance rule between them.
The surge in virus cases and deaths showed that Italy’s containment measures have yet to curb the number of new infections. The store closings are designed to keep Italians quarantined at home and are unprecedented in modern European history outside of war.
The Italian numbers, which came on the second day of a national quarantine ordered by Mr. Conte, were grim. The country’s civil protection service said that confirmed cases had climbed by more than 2,300 in the past 24 hours, to almost 12,500. Fatalities rose by almost a third, to 827, and the number of serious and critical cases surpassed 1,000.
Across the world, the increase in cases is startling. In Europe, Spain and Germany each reported hundreds of new cases and significant rises were seen in Switzerland, Norway, the Netherlands and Sweden. In South Korea, there was a jump in new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, reversing 11 days of slowing infections. Another 242 new cases were reported, compared with 35 a day earlier, bringing the total to 7,755 in Asia’s worst outbreak outside mainland China. The official death toll rose by four to 63. Japan has reported 1,278 cases of coronavirus and 19 deaths.
Iran, also hit hard by the virus, has reported about 9,000 cases, with the death toll rising to 354. In the United States, the number of cases has risen steadily and affected almost three-quarters of the states. More than 1,000 cases along with 31 deaths have been reported thus far. In Canada, there have been more than 100 cases, including one death.
The lone bit of good news was that the rate of new infections in China continued to drop, thanks to its draconian isolation orders. In the past 24 hours, China recorded only 36 new cases. Total fatalities in China rose by 22 to 3,158.
In his address, Mr. Trump said: “This is the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus in modern history.” The U.S. has previously barred entry to most non-Americans who had recently travelled to China or Iran. Mr. Trump said he would review that edict in China’s case and could lift restrictions in the near future.
The President criticized the European Union for not taking similar action, and blamed it for bringing coronavirus to the U.S. “The European Union failed to take the same precautions and restrict travel from China and other hot-spots. As a result, a large number of new clusters in the United States were seeded by travellers from Europe,” he said.
The rapid spread of the virus across Europe has sent central bankers and finance ministers scrambling to launch stimulus packages to prop up their economies as the containment measures shut down cities, schools and businesses, raising the odds that many countries will fall into recession. The economies of Germany, which on Wednesday recorded 343 new cases, taking the total to more than 1,900, and Italy were stalling even before COVID-19 erupted on the continent.
On Wednesday, the Bank of England cut is main interest rate by half a percentage point while Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak unveiled an emergency spending package worth £12-billion ($21.2-billion) to try to stop the virus and its containment measures from triggering a downturn as Britain tries to negotiate a new trade deal with the European Union. Italy is ramping up its stimulus spending to €25-billion, spending that will put the highly indebted, zero-growth country under enormous financial strain.
Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel said her government would do “whatever is necessary” to protect the economy, and Christine Lagarde, the new president of the European Central Bank, who makes her rate-setting debut on Thursday in Frankfurt, called on EU leaders to launch co-ordinated crisis-response measures to avoid a crash.
The health crisis in Italy has been intensifying by the day, with numerous reports of hospitals in northern Italy, the epicentre of the European COVID-19 outbreak, at breaking point.
Before Mr. Conte’s new shutdown orders, Attilio Fontana, Governor of Lombardy, the wealthy northern region where the Italian outbreak started last month, was pleading for the government to implement tougher measures to stop the alarming spread of the virus. He said he wanted Mr. Conte to “go in the direction of closing everything,” meaning that he wanted nothing but supermarkets and pharmacies left open.
The Italian shutdown announced on Tuesday had closed all cultural and sporting events, schools, museums, gyms, pools, libraries and community centres. The drastic new shutdown rules a day later should ensure that the streets are empty. On Wednesday, Burger King, a popular chain in Italy, said it is temporarily closing its 200 outlets. Many airlines have suspended flights to Italy, including Air Canada.
Lombardy has more confirmed coronavirus cases than the rest of Italy and almost as much as the rest of Europe. At last count, there were almost 7,300 cases in the region, whose main city is Milan.
As the number of infections and deaths rose, COVID-19 horror stories hit the press and social media. Luca Franzese, an actor in the Italian Mafia drama Gomorrah, posted a Facebook video pleading for help after being trapped with the dead body of his sister, Teresa, for 36 hours while being quarantined in his Naples home. Teresa, 47, tested positive for the virus after her death on Saturday.
China is sending 1,000 ventilators, 50,000 swab test kits, 20,00 protective suits and millions of face masks to Italy, along with a small team of doctors. “Once we arrive in Italy, we’ll get down to learning the situation there and exchange anti-epidemic experience and co-operate with the Italian medics,” Liang Zongan, director of pulmonary and critical care at West China Hospital of Sichuan University, told the Chinese media.
Ventilators have proven to be effective in reducing mortality rates among seriously ill patients.
With reports from Adrian Morrow in Washington, and from Reuters and The Associated Press
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