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Italy locks down as China signals progress in virus fight

by AFP
Italy is the worst affected country in Europe

About 60 million Italians were told Tuesday to stay in their homes to help battle the most deadly coronavirus outbreak outside China, as some Asian nations expressed hope that their outbreaks were abating.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping sought to ease concerns in the country where the virus was first detected in December, making his first visit to the epicenter of Wuhan and declaring the spread in the central city and Hubei province to be “basically curbed”.

On the world’s financial markets, stocks and oil bounced back on hopes of US economic stimulus measures, after suffering their biggest one-day losses in more than a decade on Monday.

Official figures showed daily infections in China are at their lowest level since record-keeping began in January, with 19 new infections and 17 deaths recorded on Tuesday, after a similar flatlining of cases in South Korea.

By contrast, Europe’s outbreak appeared to be on an upward trajectory.

Italy is the worst affected country outside China with more than 9,000 infections and 463 deaths and has posted huge jumps in cases each day for the past week.

South Korea reported fewer than 150 new cases of COVID-19

China remains the hardest hit overall with more than 80,000 cases and over 3,000 deaths out of a global total of 114,151 cases and 4,102 deaths across 105 countries and territories, according to an AFP tally based on official data.

Reflecting on the different stages of the outbreak, China relaxed some of its most severe restrictions in Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak, at the same moment as several European countries went on full alert mode.

A slew of airlines announced they would cut all flights to Italy for the next few weeks while a number of European countries announced the closure of schools and bans on mass public events.

In the Middle East there were also signs of a deepening crisis, with Iran — the worst-affected in the region — registering 54 new deaths — the highest single-day toll so far in the country with the third deadliest outbreak in the world.

The spread of coronavirus

– ‘Just the beginning’ –

Strict lockdowns and travel restrictions were apparently successful in China but faced a rocky start in Italy, where Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte told residents they should travel only for the most urgent work or health reasons.

While squares in Milan and Rome were emptied of their usual bustle and traffic, some residents were confused as to whether they were even allowed to leave their homes for everyday tasks like shopping.

Queues formed outside supermarkets from Naples to Rome.

“I’m not scared of anything in particular but there is a general worry,” 85-year-old Grazia told AFP as she waited for groceries in the capital.

China said the epicenter of the new coronavirus outbreak, Hubei, would relax travel restrictions to allow healthy people to move within the hard-hit province

Governments elsewhere in Europe were also scrambling to balance their responses between restrictions and pushing out accurate information to avoid panic.

Italy’s northern neighbor Austria declared it would no longer admit people other than Austrians traveling from Italy unless they show medical need, one of the most severe steps taken by any European government.

Sports schedules have been wrecked across Europe, with Barcelona’s Champions League football match against Napoli next Wednesday the latest to fall prey to the virus — it will be played behind closed doors.

In a rare glimmer of positive news, the remaining guests at a hotel in Spain’s Canary Islands on lockdown left the building after a 14-day quarantine, to the cheers and applause of hotel workers and medical staff.

But President Emmanuel Macron provided a reminder of Europe’s plight, warning that France was “just at the beginning” of its outbreak, Europe’s second most acute with more than 1,400 infected and 25 dead.

A woman waits for the metro at the Gorla underground station in Milan

– Officials at risk –

In the United States, reports have suggested President Donald Trump could be vulnerable after several senior Republicans quarantined themselves because they had been in contact with a virus sufferer.

The White House insisted Trump had not been in contact with anyone confirmed to have COVID-19, but Vice-President Mike Pence did little to dampen concern when he conceded he did not know whether the president had been tested.

There are concerns that the US could become another hotspot, with at least 26 deaths and 605 confirmed infections so far.

Trump said he would propose “very substantial” economic measures to Congress on Tuesday including tax relief and aid for workers in the gig economy who worry about calling in sick.

In New York, the UN closed its headquarters to the public, while major US universities have been forced to cancel classes and move lessons online.

On the West Coast — where most of the US deaths have occurred — the Grand Princess cruise ship has docked at California’s Port of Oakland, for more than 2,400 passengers to be taken into treatment or placed in quarantine, in a delicate, days-long operation.

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