WHO urges world to ‘double down’ against virus pandemic

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    GENEVA. – The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) urged all countries on Thursday to “double down” in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

    Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, speaking to diplomats in Geneva a day after characterizing COVID-19 as a pandemic, also said: “Describing this as a pandemic does not mean that countries should give up. The idea that countries should shift from containment to mitigation is wrong and dangerous.”

    He said that, while maintaining a containment strategy, all countries must “strike a fine balance between protecting health, preventing economic and social disruption, and respecting human rights”, according to remarks made available by the agency.

    In Washington, travelers scrambled to rebook flights and global markets reeled on Thursday after US President Donald Trump imposed sweeping restrictions on travel from Europe, hitting battered airlines and further straining ties with the continent.

    Trump ordered travel from Europe to the United States restricted for 30 days, responding to mounting pressure to take action against a rapidly spreading coronavirus outbreak disrupting nearly all corners of US daily life.

    “We are marshaling the full power of the federal government and the private sector to protect the American people,” Trump said in a prime-time televised address from the Oval Office on Wednesday.

    “This is the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus in modern history.”

    The travel order, which starts at midnight on Friday, does not apply to Britain, or to Americans undergoing “appropriate screenings,” Trump said.

    After triggering confusion by suggesting trade with Europe would also be suspended, Trump clarified that “trade will in no way be affected.”

    “The restriction stops people not goods,” he said on Twitter moments after his speech.

    The surprise restrictions sent financial markets tumbling, with Euro Stoxx 50 futures plunging 8.3% to their lowest levels since mid-2016. U.S. stock futures were down more than 4%.

    “Already we know the economic impact is significant, and with this additional measure on top it’s just going to multiply the impact across businesses,” said Khoon Goh, head of Asia Research at ANZ in Singapore. “This is something that markets had not factored in … it’s a huge near-term economic cost.”

    Trump said his government had been in frequent contact with U.S. allies about the restriction, but European Union officials were not notified about it ahead of time, said one diplomat.

    “There was no heads-up, no coordination as the president claimed,” said the diplomat, who was not authorized to speak publicly.

    The restrictions will heap more pressure on airlines already reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, hitting European carriers the hardest, analysts said.

    FINANCIAL RELIEF

    Washington, D.C., resident Michelle Cravez, 30, who is visiting her brother in Prague, quickly rebooked a ticket home.

    “It quickly became apparent that demand was pushing costs up and seats were going fast,” she said in a Twitter conversation with a Reuters reporter. “Shortly after, we find out that this ruling may not apply to citizens.

    “Still, with everything so fluid – who knows whether flights start getting canceled – we decided to bite the bullet and book a new itinerary that got us home before the deadline.”
    In an effort to lessen the economic impact of the outbreak and the restrictions, Trump instructed the Treasury Department to defer tax payments without interest or penalties for certain business and individuals hit by the health crisis.

    The president also said he would take emergency action to provide financial relief for workers who are ill, quarantined or caring for others due to coronavirus. And he said he was directing the Small Business Administration to provide capital and liquidity to firms affected coronavirus, including low-interest loans.

    In Australia, the government said it would pump A$17.6 billion ($11.4 billion) into the economy to try to stop the coronavirus outbreak triggering a recession.

    A senior ruling party lawmaker in Japan said it must brainstorm plans for dealing with canceled or postponed Tokyo Olympic Games, even if that is unlikely.

    SPORTS, SCHOOLS DISRUPTED

    Trump’s travel order, which applies to 26 European countries, capped a day of mounting upheavals on the domestic front from the highly contagious respiratory illness, also known as COVID-19.

    In the hard-hit Seattle area, the largest public school district in Washington state announced an unprecedented two-week suspension of all classes.

    The greater Seattle area is the epicenter of the deadliest, and one of the largest, clusters of coronavirus infections in the United States, accounting for the bulk of at least 38 US fatalities from the disease.

    Washington state has documented 373 coronavirus cases, including 30 deaths. There were 1,311 cases in total in the United States, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally.

    The city of San Francisco banned non-essential social events of 1,000 people or more, and major sports competitions were affected.

    The National Basketball Association said it was suspending the season until further notice after a Utah Jazz player tested positive for the coronavirus while the National Collegiate Athletic Association said its wildly popular “March Madness” basketball tournament games would be played in arenas without fans.

    Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks announced on Twitter that he and his wife, Rita Wilson, had tested positive for coronavirus in Australia, where he was on a film shoot.

    New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade would be postponed, following several other cities that have likewise scrubbed their March 17 holiday celebrations.

    OFFICIALLY A PANDEMIC

    GENEVA/LONDON. – Now officially a global pandemic, the coronavirus outbreak is forcing Italy to tighten its nationwide lockdown by shutting bars, hairdressers and restaurants as other countries closed schools and cancelled sports events and other big gatherings.

    The virus sent the Dow into a bear market for the first time since the 2008 financial crisis as the massive financial stimulus promised by governments around the globe failed to reassure investors.

    Wall Street stocks plunged almost 5% on Wednesday, and already skittish investors awaiting details on U.S. measures were unnerved by news that the White House ordered federal health officials to treat dozens of virus-related meetings as classified.

    I Europe, Denmark shut all schools and universities after a 10-fold rise in cases since Monday, and strain is mounting on Italy’s healthcare system despite all efforts to contain the outbreak.

    The new restrictions in Italy, the most severe controls placed on a Western nation since World War Two, came after confirmed cases rose to 12,462 on Wednesday, from a previous 10,149, with the death toll jumping by 196 in 24 hours to 827.

    The country’s 60 million people are under lockdown. “We will only be able to see the effects of this great effort in a couple of weeks,” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said.

    German Chancellor Angela Merkel said up to 70% of the population was likely to be infected as the virus spreads around the world in the absence of a cure.

    With Europe the new epicentre of the outbreak, the Trump administration is likely to discourage Americans from taking trips to Europe as soon as Wednesday, sources said.

    There are now more than 121,000 infections in 118 countries and over 4,300 people have died of the virus, according to a Reuters tally.

    While China brought its outbreak under control and normalcy is returning, the number of cases outside China rose 13-fold in the past two weeks, and the number of countries affected tripled, with Iran and Italy the worst-hit countries in the Middle East and Europe.

    “Italy and Iran are in the frontline and are suffering but other countries will be in that situation very soon,” said Mike Ryan, the head of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) emergencies programme.

    The WHO described the coronavirus outbreak as a pandemic for the first time on Wednesday but use of the word pandemic does not change the agency’s response, said Ryan.

    He also said there was “a strong element of controllability” and “a real chance to blunt the curve… and reduce the number of cases.” – Reuters