Markets plunge, WHO warns pandemic risk ‘very real’ as virus spreads

In Europe's hardest-hit country, Italy, officials are trying to close off a vast area including the cities of Milan and Venice (AFP Photo/Alberto PIZZOLI)

The World Health Organization warned Monday that the threat of a coronavirus pandemic is “very real” as financial markets tanked, oil prices crashed and millions of people in northern Italy were put under lockdown.

The death toll from the virus neared 4,000 and the fallout disrupted economies and societies across the world, shuttering factories, disturbing travel, and postponing or cancelling concerts and sporting events.

Even as WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned “the threat of a pandemic has become very real,” he stressed that “it would be the first pandemic in history that can be controlled”.

“We are not at the mercy of the virus,” he said.-

More than 110,000 cases of the novel coronavirus have been recorded in over 100 countries since the epidemic erupted in December in Wuhan, China.

Germany and Canada reported their first coronavirus deaths on Monday, but the vast majority of fatalities have been in China, where there are signs the outbreak has peaked.

Elsewhere, it was announced on Monday that the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Dublin was cancelled, while a commemoration march at the Nazi German Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps has been postponed.

France’s Culture Minister Franck Riester on Monday became the latest high-profile official to test positive.

In Europe’s hardest-hit country, Italy, officials are trying to close off a vast area which includes the cities of Milan and Venice and contains 15 million people — mimicking a lockdown at the disease’s epicentre in China.

Tens of millions of people are now in quarantine worldwide but there are fears that the disease will spread further and force several economies into recession.

– ‘Black Monday’ –

Coronavirus fears and the steepest fall in oil princes since the 1991 Gulf War sent markets into a tailspin, wiping hundreds of billions of dollars from exchanges and prompting financial analyst Neil Wilson to call it “Black Monday”.

Trading on Wall Street was temporarily halted early Monday as US stocks joined the global rout. Brazil’s Sao Paulo exchange suspended trading briefly after a 10-percent plunge.

In afternoon trading, Wall Street stocks had cratered by more than eight percent.

European stock markets also slumped dramatically, following a dramatic downturn in Asia, with indexes in London, Paris and Frankfurt falling by seven percent or more.

Millions of people have seen daily life disrupted by school closures — with those announced Monday in Greece and Spain — as well as runs on basic household goods and travel restrictions.

Italy — Europe’s worst-affected country — reported 97 more deaths on Monday, bringing its toll to 463 and pushing Europe’s total past 500.

Italian officials faced a further headache after prisoners fearful of infection protested or rioted in 23 jails across the country — leaving several dead.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte gloomily cited the wartime fireside chats of Britain’s Winston Churchill as evidence that great nations persevere when the going gets tough.

“It is our darkest hour but we will make it,” he said.

Sporting events continue to be severely disrupted, with the Indian Wells tournament in California cancelled, and spectators barred from the last two races of the Alpine skiing World Cup finals.

Top-flight football matches across Europe were being played behind closed doors, and international rugby matches have also had several postponements.

– US cases surge –

There are mounting concerns that the United States — the world’s largest and most connected economy — could be the next COVID-19 hotspot.

At least 22 people have died in the country and the number of cases has passed 500 as President Donald Trump’s administration struggled to deal with a virus-hit cruise ship stuck off the California coast.

The Grand Princess docked in Oakland on Monday with 21 confirmed infections among its 3,500 passengers.

Trump has argued they should stay on the ship but those needing medical attention will leave the ship first, followed by the rest of the 2,421 passengers on board.

The president has been accused of peddling misinformation on the outbreak, but he hit back on Sunday, accusing the media of trying to make his government “look bad”, tweeting that the White House had a “perfectly coordinated and fine tuned plan”.

US media reported that Trump will consider options later Monday for emergency economic assistance to Americans.

– Spread slowing in China –

Some forecasters are painting a doom-laden picture for the global economy, with the UN Conference on Trade, Investment and Development suggesting the virus spread could hit foreign direct investment worldwide by as much as 15 percent.

Several central banks have already intervened to prop up faltering economies.

The International Monetary Fund called for a coordinated global response that would help workers and businesses directly.

The number of cases in Europe passed 15,000 on Monday, and Romania banned gatherings of more than 1,000, while Slovenia did the same for rallies of 100 people.

European Union leaders will hold an emergency videoconference on Tuesday aimed at coordinating their response to the outbreak.

But there were signs that the peak may have been reached in both China and South Korea.

China said it had closed most of the makeshift hospitals opened to receive coronavirus patients in the epidemic’s epicentre around Wuhan, as the number of new infections in the country hit a record low.

There were 40 new cases nationwide, the National Health Commission said, the lowest number of fresh cases since it started reporting the data in January. China has seen almost 75 percent of the global coronavirus cases.

The WHO reported that 70 percent of the people infected with the virus in China had recovered.

South Korea, which has one of the largest coronavirus totals outside China, reported its smallest daily rise in cases for two weeks.

But Iran announced 43 new deaths on Monday, bringing its toll to 237, and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei cancelled an annual speech marking the start of the Persian new year.

Israel announced a two-week quarantine for all travellers entering the country.

India meanwhile announced a ban on foreign cruise ships entering its ports.


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