The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic and urged all countries to take aggressive action to combat it as US stocks plunged into bear markets and several American cities joined global peers in banning large gatherings.
By using the charged word “pandemic,” having previously balked at calling it that, the UN health agency tried to shock lethargic countries into pulling out all the stops.
“We have urged countries every day to take urgent and aggressive action. We rang the alarm bell loud and clear,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Wednesday.
“All countries can still change the course of this pandemic. As countries identify, test, treat, isolate, track and mobilize their populations in response,” he said. “We are deeply concerned by the alarming level of spread and severity, as well as the alarming level of inaction.”
After days of downplaying the threat of the virus, President Donald Trump announced in an Oval Office address that he would severely limit European passenger traffic to the United States and take steps to mitigate the economic costs of the pandemic.
The NBA became the first major American sports league to suspend play, raising questions about the college basketball championships, which will be played without fan participation for the time being. In Italy, football club Juventus said defender Daniele Rugani has tested positive.
Iran and Italy are the new frontlines of the fight against the virus that has started in China, the WHO said.
“You are suffering, but I guarantee you that other countries will soon find themselves in this situation,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, WHO’s head of emergencies.
For the global economy, the impact of the virus has been profound, with growing concerns over wealth- and job-sapping recessions. US stocks erased more than all of the gains from a huge rally the day before as Wall Street continued to falter.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 1,464 points, down 20% from last month’s record and pushing it into what Wall Street calls a “bear market.” The broader S&P 500 is just 1 percentage point away from falling into bear territory and ending one of the biggest runs in Wall Street history.
WHO officials said they had thought long and hard about calling the crisis a pandemic – defined as ongoing outbreaks in multiple regions of the world.
The risk of using the term, Ryan said, is “when people use it as an excuse to give up.” But the upside is “potentially mobilizing the world to fight.”
Underlining the growing challenge: rising numbers in the US and Europe’s status as the new epicenter of the pandemic. While Italy has surpassed 12,000 cases and the United States has surpassed 1,300, China on Thursday reported a record low of just 15 new cases and three-quarters of its infected patients have recovered.
China’s total of 80,793 cases and 3,169 deaths is a shrinking chunk of the world’s more than 126,000 infections and 4,600 deaths.
“If you want to be completely frank, Europe is the new China,” said Robert Redfield, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
With 12,462 cases and 827 deaths, Italy said all shops and businesses except pharmacies and grocery stores would shut down from Thursday and provided billions of dollars in financial relief to cushion economic shocks in its latest effort to adjust to the rapidly evolving crisis. which silenced the normally busy heart of the Catholic faith, St. Peter’s Square.
In Iran, by far the hardest-hit country in the Middle East, the senior vice president and two other cabinet ministers have reportedly been diagnosed with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. Iran reported another 62 increase in deaths to 354 – behind only China and Italy.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said it was necessary to “take another step” to tighten the already unprecedented travel and social restrictions that went into effect on Tuesday, shutting down pubs, restaurants, hair salons, cafeterias and other businesses have been closed that cannot work with a meter (yard ) of the distance between workers and customers.
“Right now the whole world is looking at us because of the number of infections, but also seeing … great resistance,” Conte said on Facebook Live.
These measures come on top of the travel and social restrictions that have imposed an eerie silence on cities and towns across the country.
Still, the effectiveness of travel restrictions and quarantines are likely to decrease significantly as COVID-19 spreads around the world, making it impossible for countries to keep the virus out. Health authorities also need to be more flexible in their coordinated response efforts, as epicenters are likely to shift rapidly and dramatically.
For most, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for a select few, particularly older adults and those with existing health conditions, it can lead to more serious illnesses, including pneumonia. But the vast majority recover: those with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while more severe illness can take three to six weeks, WHO says.
In the Middle East, most of the nearly 10,000 cases are in Iran or involve people who have traveled there. Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency said Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri was among them. Iran’s ministers of cultural heritage, crafts and tourism, as well as industry, mining and economy have also been infected, the agency said.
The United States drew attention with its rising caseload and the impact of canceled events. The NCAA said it would play March Madness without fans, and the NBA said it would suspend its season until further notice. Cities have canceled St. Patrick’s Day parades and closed several colleges. Actor Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson said they had the virus. He was working in Australia when they felt ill with a mild fever, his statement said.
Officials in Seattle announced public schools would be closed for about 53,000 students and large gatherings would be banned in San Francisco and Washington state, the hardest-hit US state with 29 deaths.
The virus has turned the US presidential campaign upside down, with US Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders canceling rallies, leaving open the possibility that future campaign events could be disrupted. Trump’s campaign insisted it would go ahead as usual, although Vice President Mike Pence acknowledged future rallies would be evaluated “on a day-to-day basis”.
And at a congressional hearing in Washington, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, alert: “The bottom line is it’s only going to get worse.”