Virus spreads to new countries as top official warns world 'not ready'
Even as the number of fresh cases declines at the epicentre of the disease in China, there has been a sudden increase in parts of Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
Entire towns and cities in different parts of the world have been sealed off in an attempt to stop the contagion, while hotels in the Canary Island and Austria were placed under lockdown on Tuesday because of suspected cases.
In Iran, which has reported 15 deaths from the disease out of nearly 100 infections, even the country's deputy health minister Iraj Harirchi said he had contracted the virus.
At the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Bruce Aylward, who headed up an international expert mission to China, told reporters that other countries were "simply not ready" to rein in the outbreak.
"You have to be ready to manage this at a larger scale... and it has to be done fast," Aylward said, insisting all countries had to "be ready as if this hits us tomorrow".
Spread to new countries
The virus has killed more than 2,600 people and infected over 77,000 others in China. In the rest of the world, there have been more than 40 deaths and 2,700 cases.
Spreading along travel and trade routes, the disease has now reached dozens of countries, with Austria, Croatia and Switzerland becoming the latest additions on Tuesday.
The disruption caused by the epidemic has also grown, with stock markets tumbling around the world, restrictions imposed on travellers and sporting events cancelled.
The WHO, the UN health agency, has called for countries to "prepare for a potential pandemic"—a term used to describe an epidemic that spreads throughout the world.
The WHO has warned that poor countries are particularly at risk and has sent test kits and equipment to parts of the world with weaker health systems, such as Africa.
Gulf cuts links to Iran
In the Middle East, Iran has emerged as a major hotspot.
The death toll rose to 15 on Tuesday as three more people succumbed to the disease—officially known as COVID-19.
The country has been scrambling to contain the epidemic since last week when it announced its first two deaths in Qom, a centre for Islamic studies and pilgrims that attracts scholars from abroad.
Gulf countries announced new measures on Tuesday to cut links with Iran in an attempt to stop the spread.
The United Arab Emirates suspended passenger and cargo flights to Iran, while Bahrain closed schools and nurseries for two weeks.
This came after the Gulf states of Kuwait and Bahrain announced additional cases.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in warned that the outbreak was "very grave" as his country's death toll rose to 10 and the number of confirmed infections approached 1,000—the largest total outside China.
Scores of events have been cancelled or postponed as the outbreak has spread in the world's 12th-largest economy, from K-pop concerts to the World Team Table Tennis championship.
Parliament closed for cleaning on Tuesday after confirmation that a person with the coronavirus had attended a meeting there last week.
More than 80 percent of the infections have been in and around Daegu, South Korea's fourth-largest city.
Streets there have been largely deserted for days, apart from long queues at the few shops with masks for sale.
Most of the country's infections are linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, an entity often accused of being a cult.
In Japan, a fourth former passenger of the coronavirus-stricken Diamond Princess cruise ship died, a health ministry official said. The man was in his 80s.
Nearly 700 people from the quarantined ship have tested positive for the illness so far.
Infections have also spiked inside Japan, with at least 160 cases including one death.
The government has expanded the number of hospitals that can receive suspected patients and asked people with moderate symptoms to stay home.
Italy—which has reported 10 deaths and over 300 cases—has locked down 11 towns and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has said the measures could last weeks.
Upcoming football matches in Italy's Serie A and the Europa League will be played to empty stadiums.
China returning to business
In China meanwhile, the epidemic appears to be slowing.
Reassured by the official numbers, the country is gingerly returning to business.
Beijing is seeing more cars on the street, factories are resuming work, Apple is reopening several stores, and some regions are relaxing traffic restrictions.
But schools remain closed, the capital has a mandatory 14-day quarantine for returning residents, and authorities are keeping some 56 million people in Hubei Province—the hub of the outbreak—under lockdown.
© 2020 AFP