Fears are growing that the Covid-19 outbreak could reach a pandemic scale as more cases emerge around the world. A pandemic is when an infectious disease spreads easily from person to person in many parts of the world.
What we know
- More than 77,000 people in China, where the virus emerged last year, have been infected and nearly 2,600 have died (it is believed these figures have been greatly underreported).
- More than 1,200 cases have been confirmed in about 30 other countries and there have been more than 20 deaths.
- Italy reported three more deaths on February 24, raising the total there to six.
- The death toll in Iran rises to at least 12, drawing fears of further spread in the Middle East.
- Wuhan walks back the announcement that it will ease lockdown.
- In South Korea, cases skyrocket to more than 800.
- Global stocks plummet over coronavirus concerns.
Italy seeks to contain a spike in cases
As Italy locked down 50,000 people in 10 towns to contain the first major coronavirus outbreak in Europe — and a fifth person there died from the virus — a growing nervousness pervaded the continent, with officials in nearby countries pledging to keep the outbreak from spreading further.
On February 24, the total number of cases in Italy rose to 219 from at least 152 cases a day earlier, according to Angelo Borrelli, the head of the Civil Protection Agency and the coordinator of the country’s coronavirus emergency response.
More than 100 of those cases are in the northern region of Lombardy. Italian officials on February 24 confirmed a fifth death attributed to the coronavirus, an 88-year-old man from Caselle Landi, about 70 kilometers south of Milan. At least 26 coronavirus patients are in intensive care, officials said.
The spike in Italy has already prompted an aggressive response. Besides the lockdown of the 10 towns in Lombardy, where a sizable cluster of coronavirus infections has emerged, Italy also approved emergency measures that apply throughout the country.
Residents in lockdown were supposed to leave or enter their towns only with special permission, and police and military forces were deployed to monitor the entrances to the towns. Officials closed schools and canceled the last two days of the Venice carnival, as well as trade fairs, opera performances, and soccer matches.
The virus is also affecting Milan, the country’s economic engine, though the city is not currently under quarantine. The stock market in Milan dropped more than 4 percent on February 24, and many tourist attractions, including the city’s famed cathedral, were closed. Some colleges canceled classes, while international students moved up planned departure dates out of fear of being stranded.
The southern region of Basilicata imposed a 14-day quarantine on people coming from affected northern regions, and passengers from an Alitalia flight from Rome to the African island of Mauritius were given a choice of quarantine or immediate return. Alitalia said none of the passengers had demonstrated symptoms of the coronavirus but had decided to return to Italy.
The virus presents Europe with perhaps its greatest challenge since the 2015 migration crisis, which radically altered the politics of the European Union and exposed its institutional weaknesses. A spread of the virus would test the fundamental principle of open borders within much of Europe — so central to the identity of the bloc — as well as the vaunted but strained European public health systems.
A European commissioner said the European Union was in constant contact with the authorities in Italy, but the surge of cases has heightened vigilance in neighboring countries. The authorities in Lyon, France, stopped a bus from Milan on February 24 and confined the passengers inside after suspicions of a case on board, the Le Parisien newspaper reported.
The death toll in Iran rises to at least 12
The outbreak has killed at least 12 people in Iran as of February 24, state news outlets reported — the largest number of coronavirus-linked deaths outside China.
The country’s deputy health minister said on February 24 that at least 61 people had tested positive for the virus. Tehran announced a weeklong closure of schools, universities, and cultural centers across 14 provinces in an effort to curb the outbreak.
Experts have said that, based on the number of dead, the total number of cases in Iran is probably much higher, as the illness linked to the virus appears to kill about one of every 50 people infected. Iran said just days ago that it was untouched by the virus.
Amid evidence that the virus may be spreading elsewhere in the Middle East — with confirmed cases in Bahrain, Iraq, and Kuwait all linked to Iran — neighboring nations have put measures in place to try to limit transmissions. Pakistan and Turkey temporarily closed their borders with Iran on February 23.
Pakistan’s 596-mile border with Iran, a largely lawless area with few border controls, poses particular challenges in controlling the spread of the virus.
In Afghanistan, the National Security Council said on February 23 that all travel to Iran would be reduced to “essential humanitarian needs.” The country’s first coronavirus case was confirmed on February 24.
Within Iran, long lines have formed outside pharmacies, and there is a shortage of masks and disinfectants, according to health officials and people in Iran. Officials have warned that hospitals are overstretched, and urged people to refrain from emergency room visits unless they have acute symptoms.
Although the origin of the outbreak in Iran is unclear, the country’s health minister said that Chinese carriers were a source of the outbreak, the Fars news agency reported on February 23.
Wuhan walks back an announcement that it will ease lockdown
The announcement was striking: Wuhan, the Chinese city at the center of the coronavirus epidemic, would begin easing a sweeping lockdown imposed by officials in late January by allowing some people to leave. But just hours after news of the change on February 24, the authorities backtracked, saying the announcement had been made in error.
The reversal prompted anger and confusion in China and added to fears that the government was mishandling its response to the virus. The government in Wuhan, a city of 11 million, has previously been criticized as acting too slowly and concealing information about the outbreak.
In the initial announcement, the authorities in Wuhan said that healthy people who did not live in the city and residents who required specialized medical treatment would be eligible to leave. Such a decision — the first relaxation of a lockdown that has kept millions of people indoors for weeks — would most likely have required approval from the central government in Beijing. The government deleted the original announcement a few hours later.
In a fresh statement, the authorities in Wuhan said that the original directive had been issued without the approval of top leaders and that it would “seriously criticize” the people responsible for the error.
In South Korea, cases skyrocket to more than 800
South Korea on February 24 reported 231 more cases of the virus that causes the disease Covid-19, bringing the nation’s total to 833 cases and seven deaths. President Moon Jae-in put South Korea on the highest possible alert on February 23, a move that empowers the government to lock down cities and take other sweeping measures to contain the outbreak.
“The coming few days will be a critical time for us,” Mr. Moon said at an emergency meeting of government officials to discuss the outbreak. “The central government, local governments, health officials, and medical personnel and the entire people must wage an all-out, concerted response to the problem.”
Many of South Korea’s coronavirus cases are in the southeastern city of Daegu, which has essentially been placed under a state of emergency, though people are still free to enter and leave the city. More than half of the people confirmed to have been infected are either members of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, a secretive religious sect with a strong presence in Daegu, or their relatives or other contacts.
On February 24, the United States Forces Korea confirmed that a dependent of a member of the armed forces living in Daegu was among those who had tested positive for the virus.
Global stocks plummet over coronavirus concerns
Global markets fell on February 24 as investors worried that the economic disruption the outbreak has already caused in China might have a wider impact.
The S&P 500 dropped nearly 3 percent at the start of trading after European markets recorded their worst day since 2016 and major benchmarks in Asia closed sharply lower. The Dow Jones industrial average fell more than 900 points.
In Asia, the South Korean market slumped nearly 4 percent after a surge in cases of the coronavirus confirmed there over the weekend. Australian shares dropped over 2 percent, while the Hong Kong index fell 1.8 percent.
The coronavirus epidemic in China has already severely curtailed economic growth in the country. Factories have been slow to reopen, partly because mass quarantines have prevented many employees from returning to their jobs, but also because demand in China has at least temporarily collapsed for a wide variety of goods. Auto sales plummeted 92 percent in the first two weeks of February compared to the period time last year.
Investors have been on edge since the start of the crisis because of the role that China’s factories play in global business and because it is a huge consumer market itself. But fresh reports that the virus is not contained are “signaling alarm bells,” a market analyst at Citigroup wrote on February 24.