WHO labels coronavirus outbreak a ‘pandemic’
The World Health Organization called the new coronavirus outbreak a pandemic on Wednesday, issuing a grim warning that the global spread and severity of the illness was due to “alarming levels of inaction”.
The declaration came as Europe faced a mounting number of cases — including a slew of new countries clocking first deaths — prompting governments to roll out increasingly tough measures to slow the rapid spread of the virus.
The number of cases across the globe has risen to more than 124,000 with 4,500 deaths, including a jump in fatalities in Iran and Italy in particular, according to an AFP tally.
The majority of cases have been in China where the outbreak first emerged in December, but as the number of new infections has steadied in the country, hotspots have emerged elsewhere — namely Italy, Iran and Spain.
The head of the UN’s top health body for the first time characterised the outbreak as a pandemic, meaning it is spreading in several regions through local transmission.
“We have never before seen a pandemic sparked by a coronavirus,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday, adding that the declaration would not change the organisation’s response to the outbreak.
“We’re deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction.”
He did not single out any nations for not doing enough — or what further measures were needed — instead calling on “countries to take urgent and aggressive action”.
Signs of a widening European crisis emerged Wednesday, with Ireland, Albania, Belgium, Sweden and Bulgaria registering their first deaths, while Italy clocked more than 2,300 new cases in the last 24 hours and infections in Spain jumped by a quarter to more than 2,100.
The surge brought Europe’s total number of cases to more than 22,000, with 930 deaths, with the US saying it was considering issuing a ban on travellers from the continent.
Millions of people in Italy are grappling with a nationwide clampdown that has emptied streets, shuttered shops and disrupted train and air travel.
“There are no clients; lots of colleagues are already staying at home with nothing to do,” 59-year-old Milan taxi driver Daniele said.
The government vowed to spend up to 25 billion euros ($28 billion) to help contain the fallout from the epidemic, including cash injections for hard-hit hotels and restaurants and allowing families to suspend some mortgage payments.
Even places with no significant outbreaks like Poland and Ukraine announced school closures and other restrictive measures, and Austria said it would shut museums and halt train services to and from Italy.
In the Middle East, hard-hit Iran reported 63 new deaths, its highest single-day toll and bringing total fatalities to 354. It has yet to impose quarantines but has closed schools, universities and hotels and called on people not to travel.
WHO’s Tedros said the country, which has 9,000 cases, was “doing its best” to control the spread of the virus, but that it needed more supplies to cope.
Elsewhere in the region, Kuwait said it was suspending all commercial flights in and out of the country, following suit with other travel restrictions adopted by Gulf nations.