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Coronavirus crisis ebbs in China as fear spreads across the West

More than 93,000 people have been infected around the world and over 3,100 have died.

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South Korean army soldiers wearing protective gears spray disinfectant as a precaution against the new coronavirus at a shopping street in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, March 4, 2020. The coronavirus epidemic shifted increasingly westward toward the Middle East, Europe and the United States on Tuesday, with governments taking emergency steps to ease shortages of masks and other supplies for front-line doctors and nurses. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

South Korean army soldiers wearing protective gears spray disinfectant as a precaution against the new coronavirus at a shopping street in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, March 4, 2020. The coronavirus epidemic shifted increasingly westward toward the Middle East, Europe and the United States on Tuesday, with governments taking emergency steps to ease shortages of masks and other supplies for front-line doctors and nurses. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

South Korean army soldiers wearing protective gears spray disinfectant as a precaution against the new coronavirus at a shopping street in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, March 4, 2020. The coronavirus epidemic shifted increasingly westward toward the Middle East, Europe and the United States on Tuesday, with governments taking emergency steps to ease shortages of masks and other supplies for front-line doctors and nurses. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

The coronavirus epidemic is shifting west towards the Middle East, Europe and the US as governments take emergency steps to ease shortages of masks and other supplies for frontline doctors and nurses.

We are concerned that countries’ abilities to respond are being compromised by the severe and increasing disruption to the global supply of personal protective equipment, caused by rising demand, hoarding and misuse,” said World Health Organisation (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“We can’t stop Covid-19 without protecting our health workers.”

– Deaths in Italy surged to 79 on Tuesday, making it the deadliest reported outbreak outside China
– Twenty-three members of Iran’s parliament and the head of the country’s emergency services were reported to have been infected
– South Korea expanded drive-through testing and confirmed hundreds of new cases
– In Spain’s Basque region, at least five doctors and nurses were infected and nearly 100 health care workers were being held in isolation
– Infections in the US topped 100 and the death toll climbed to nine, all in Washington state

The mushrooming outbreaks contrasted with optimism in China, where thousands of recovered patients were going home and the number of new infections has been dropping.

Worldwide, more than 93,000 people have been infected and over 3,100 have died, the vast majority in China. The number of countries hit by the virus exceeded 70, with Ukraine and Morocco reporting their first cases.

The US Federal Reserve announced the biggest interest-rate cut in more than a decade to try to counter expected damage to the economy, and stocks rose briefly on Wall Street in reaction before slumping again. Fed chairman Jerome Powell said the virus “will surely weigh on economic activity both here and abroad for some time”.

Other G7 countries appeared reluctant to follow suit with their own cuts, probably because many of their interest rates are already near or below zero.

Iran’s supreme leader ordered the military to assist health officials in fighting the virus, which authorities said has killed 77 people. Among the dead are a confidant of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s former ambassador to the Vatican and a recently elected member of parliament.

A woman has her temperature checked and her hands disinfected in Tehran
A woman has her temperature checked and her hands disinfected in Tehran (Vahid Salemi/AP)

Iran’s judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi, said some people are stockpiling medical supplies for profit and urged prosecutors to show no mercy. “Hoarding sanitising items is playing with people’s lives, and it is not ignorable,” he said.

France’s president announced the government will take control of current and future stocks of face masks to ensure they could go to health workers and coronavirus patients, and the finance minister warned that binge-shopping for household essentials could trigger shortages. The country reported more than 200 cases and four deaths.

“In this period we’re going through — we have entered a phase that will last weeks and, undoubtedly, months – it is indispensable to have clarity, resilience, sangfroid and determination to stop the epidemic,” Emmanuel Macron said during a visit to the government’s virus crisis centre.

South Korea confirmed another 142 cases on Wednesday morning, raising its total to 5,328, the second-highest in the world.

Virus Outbreak South Korea
Disinfecting a church in Seoul (Kim Do-hoon/Yonhap/AP)

At drive-through testing centres, workers dressed head-to-toe in white protective suits leaned into cars with mouth swabs to check for the virus, while troops sprayed disinfectant on streets and alleys across the city.

In China, the count of new cases dropped again Wednesday to just 119. It is still by far the hardest-hit country, with more than 80,000 infections and about 95% of the world’s deaths.

“We scrutinised this data and we believe this decline is real,” said WHO outbreak expert Maria Van Kerkhove, who travelled to China as part of a team from the UN agency.

She said the extraordinary measures taken there, including the lockdown of more than 60 million people, had a significant effect on the direction of the outbreak.

“We believe that a reduction of cases in other countries, including Italy, Korea, Iran, everywhere, that this is possible,” she said.

PA