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Coronavirus crisis declared pandemic by WHO

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who heads the UN agency, expressed concern about ‘the alarming levels of inaction’.

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Workers wearing protective gear disinfect a subway train as a precaution against the new coronavirus in Seoul, South Korea (Lee Jin-man/AP)

Workers wearing protective gear disinfect a subway train as a precaution against the new coronavirus in Seoul, South Korea (Lee Jin-man/AP)

Workers wearing protective gear disinfect a subway train as a precaution against the new coronavirus in Seoul, South Korea (Lee Jin-man/AP)

The World Health Organisation has declared the global coronavirus crisis a pandemic but also said it is not too late for countries to act.

By reversing course and using the charged word “pandemic” that it had previously shied away from, the UN health agency appeared to want to shock lethargic countries into pulling out all the stops.

“We have called every day for countries to take urgent and aggressive action. We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO chief.

“All countries can still change the course of this pandemic. If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace and mobilise their people in the response,” he said.

“We are deeply concerned by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction.”

The WHO added that Iran and Italy are the new front lines of the battle against the virus that started in China.

“They’re suffering but I guarantee you other countries will be in that situation soon,” said Dr Mike Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies chief.

Italy’s premier said all stores except pharmacies and grocery stores are being closed nationwide in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Premier Giuseppe Conte thanked the public for cooperating with the already unprecedented travel and social restrictions that took effect on Tuesday.

But he said on Wednesday night that Italy must “go another step” by closing all shops and businesses except for food stores, pharmacies and other shops selling “essential” items.

The tighter restrictions on daily life are the government’s latest effort to respond to the fast-moving crisis that took Italy’s number of cases from three to 12,462 in less than three weeks.

In Iran, by far the hardest-hit country in the Middle East, the senior vice president and two other cabinet ministers were reported to have been diagnosed with Covid-19, the illness caused by the virus.

Iran reported another jump in deaths, by 62 to 354 – behind only China and Italy.

In Italy, Premier Giuseppe Conte said he would consider requests from Lombardy, Italy’s hardest-hit region, to toughen the already extraordinary anti-virus lockdown that was extended nationwide on Tuesday.

A man carries chairs outside a cafe in the town of Codogno, in the region of Lombardia, northern Italy
A man carries chairs outside a cafe in the town of Codogno, in the region of Lombardia, northern Italy (Claudio Furlan/LaPresse via AP)

Lombardy wants to shut down non-essential businesses and reduce public transportation.

These additional measures would be on top of travel and social restrictions that imposed an eerie hush on cities and towns across the country from Tuesday.

Police enforced rules that customers stay one metre (3ft) apart and ensured that businesses closed by 6pm.

Mr Conte said fighting Italy’s more than 10,000 infections – the biggest outbreak outside of China – must not come at the expense of civil liberties.

His caution suggested that Italy is unlikely to adopt the draconian quarantine measures that helped China push down new infections from thousands per day to a trickle now and allowed its manufacturers to restart production lines.

China’s new worry is that the coronavirus could re-enter from abroad.

Beijing’s city government announced that all overseas visitors will be quarantined for 14 days.

Policemen wearing protective face masks patrol a quiet Wangfujing shopping district in Beijing
Policemen wearing protective face masks patrol a quiet Wangfujing shopping district in Beijing (Andy Wong/AP)

Of 24 new cases that China reported on Wednesday, five arrived from Italy and one from the United States.

China has had more than 81,000 virus infections and over 3,000 deaths.

For most, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as a temperature and cough.

But for a few, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illnesses, including pneumonia.

More than 121,000 people have been infected worldwide and over 4,300 have died.

But the vast majority of people recover.

According to the WHO, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

In the Middle East, the vast majority of the nearly 10,000 cases are in Iran or involve people who travelled there.

Iran announced another increase in cases on Wednesday to 9,000.

Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency said they include vice president Eshaq Jahangiri, who had not been seen in photos of recent top-level meetings.

Fars said Iran’s ministers for cultural heritage, handcrafts and tourism, and for industry, mines and business were also infected.

Cases in Qatar jumped from 24 to 262, and Kuwait announced a two-week shutdown of the country.

For the global economy, virus repercussions were profound, with increasing concerns of wealth and job-wrecking recessions.

US stocks sank again in early trading on Wednesday, wiping out most of a huge rally from a day earlier as Wall Street continues to reel from worries about the coronavirus.

The Wall Street plunge followed a steep decline by markets across Asia, where governments there and elsewhere have announced billions of dollars in stimulus funds, including packages revealed in Japan on Tuesday and Australia on Wednesday.

A baby wears a protective mask in Manila, Philippines
A baby wears a protective mask in Manila, Philippines (Aaron Favila/AP)

Italy’s government announced it was earmarking 25 billion euros (£22 billion) to boost anti-virus efforts and soften economic blows, including delaying tax and mortgage payments by families and businesses.

Britain’s government announced a £30 billion economic stimulus package and the Bank of England slashed its key interest rate by half a percentage point to 0.25%.

Normal life was increasingly being upended.

With police barring access to St Peter’s Square, emptying it of tens of thousands of people who usually come on Wednesdays for the weekly papal address, Pope Francis instead livestreamed prayers from the privacy of his Vatican library.

In France, the government’s weekly cabinet meeting was moved to a bigger room so President Emmanuel Macron and his ministers could sit at least one metre apart.

Athletes who usually thrive on crowds grew increasingly wary of them.

Spanish football club Getafe said it would not travel to Italy to play Inter Milan, preferring to forfeit their Europa League match rather than risk infections.

In the US, the caseload passed 1,000, and outbreaks on both sides of the country stirred alarm.

Former US vice president Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders, who are vying to take on President Donald Trump in the presidential election, abruptly cancelled rallies on Tuesday and left open the possibility that future campaign events could be impacted too.

In Europe, deaths soared among Italy’s ageing population, with 12,462 infections and 827 deaths – both numbers second only to China.

Workers place a mask on the figure of the Fallas festival in Valencia
Workers place a mask on the figure of the Fallas festival in Valencia (Alberto Saiz/AP)

In Spain, the number of cases surged past the 2,000-mark on Wednesday.

Belgium, Bulgaria, Sweden, Albania and Ireland all announced their first virus-related deaths.

“If you want to be blunt, Europe is the new China,” said Robert Redfield, the head of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel said that if the virus is not halted by vaccines and cures, up to 70% of the country’s 83 million people could ultimately become infected, citing estimates that epidemiologists have been putting forward for several weeks.

Germany has some 1,300 confirmed infections.

Mrs Merkel’s comments fit a pattern of government officials using sobering warnings to try to get people to protect themselves, most notably by washing their hands and not gathering in large numbers.

PA