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Global coronavirus cases top 100,000 as WHO chief calls for solidarity

Medics transport a patient into an ambulance at the Life Care Center of Kirkland, the long-term care facility linked to several confirmed coronavirus cases in the state, in Kirkland, Washington, U.S. on March 6, 2020.
Medics transport a patient into an ambulance at the Life Care Center of Kirkland, the long-term care facility linked to several confirmed coronavirus cases in the state, in Kirkland, Washington, U.S. on March 6, 2020. REUTERS - DAVID RYDER

Crossing more borders, the new coronavirus hit a milestone, infecting more than 100,000 people worldwide as it wove itself deeper into the daily lives of millions, infecting the powerful, the unprotected poor and vast masses in between.

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The virus, which has killed more than 3,400 people and emerged in more than 90 countries, edged into more US states on Friday and even breached the halls of the Vatican – it was announced the pope would deliver Sunday mass by livestream because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

It forced mosques in Iran and beyond to halt weekly Muslim prayers, blocked pilgrims from Jesus's birthplace in Bethlehem and upended Japan's plans for the Olympic torch parade.

As financial markets dived again, repercussions from the virus also rattled livelihoods in the real economy. 

“Who is going to feed their families?” asked Elias al-Arja, head of a hotel owners' union in Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where tourists have been banned and the storied Church of the Nativity was shuttered.

At the White House, US President Donald Trump signed an $8.3 billion bill to fight the coronavirus a day after Italy said it would double its own spending to €7.5 billion ($8.5 billion).

In Geneva, the UN health agency said it had received applications for 40 possible virus tests, had 20 vaccine candidates in development and reported that numerous clinical trials of experimental drugs for the new coronavirus were under way.

“We're all in this together. We all have a role to play,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, chief of the World Health Organization, urging more global cooperation from the business world and solidarity with the poorest.

New cases fall in China

The news wasn't all bad: More than half of those who contracted the virus have now recovered. It's retreating in China, where it first emerged, and in nearby South Korea.

China on Saturday morning reported just 99 new cases, the first time it has had only a double-digit increase since January 20. It also reported another 28 deaths. Overall, China now counts 22,177 patients currently in treatment, while it has released 55,404. South Korea on Saturday morning reported 174 new cases.

The virus continued popping up in new places, however, with countries like Colombia and Togo reporting their first confirmed cases.

Questions swirled around whether Iran could control its outbreak, as the number of reported infections jumped beyond 5,500, with 145 deaths. State news agency IRNA reported Saturday the death of a second lawmaker, Fatemeh Rahbar, from the virus. The conservative MP is one of seven politicians and government officials to die of the novel coronavirus since Iran reported its first cases in mid-February. The country has set up checkpoints to limit travel and had firefighters spray disinfectant on an 18-kilometre (11-mile) stretch of Tehran's most famous avenue.

“It would be great if they did it every day,” grocery store owner Reza Razaienejad said. “It should not be just a one-time thing.”

The 100,000 figure of global infections is largely symbolic, but dwarfs other major outbreaks in recent decades, such as SARS, MERS and Ebola. The virus is still much less widespread than annual flu epidemics, which result in up to 5 million annual severe cases around the world and from 290,000 to 650,000 deaths annually, according to the WHO.

Economic impact snowballs

But the epidemic's economic impact snowballed, with world stocks and the price of oil dropping sharply again Friday. 

The travel decline and a broader economic downturn linked to the outbreak threatened to hit already-struggling communities for months. In response to plummeting demand, German airline Lufthansa announced a reduction of its capacity in coming weeks to as much as 50 percent of pre-coronavirus outbreak levels. Slovakia banned all flights to and from Italy.

The head of the UN’s food agency, the World Food Program, warned of potential for “absolute devastation” as the outbreak’s effects ripple through Africa and the Middle East. India scrambled to stave off an epidemic that could overwhelm its underfunded, understaffed health care system, which lacks enough labs or hospitals for its 1.3 billion people.

“We’re seeing more countries affected with lower incomes, with weaker health systems and that's more concerning,” WHO chief Ghebreyesus said. 

Inconsistent health insurance and sick leave policies put the earnings of millions of workers' who can't work from home – waiters, drivers, delivery workers and more – at risk. In the US, the AFL-CIO labor federation urged the government to issue emergency regulations outlining employers' responsibilities to protect workers from infectious diseases.

'Following some of China's playbook'

The fear and the crackdowns that swept through China are now shifting westward, as workers in Europe and the US stay home, authorities vigorously sanitize public places and consumers flock to stores for household staples. 

Nation after nation put some travel restrictions into place, blocking visitors from hard-hit areas like China, South Korea, Italy and Iran. The UN’s top climate change official said her agency won’t hold any physical meetings at its headquarters in Germany or elsewhere until the end of April.

French Health Minister Olivier Véran said children would be banned from visiting patients in hospitals and other health facilities across the country and that patients would be limited to one adult visit at a time. Spanish officials announced a month-long closure of 200 centers in and around Madrid where the elderly go for daytime care and activities. In Barcelona, city officials announced that the Barcelona Marathon, normally held in March, would be postponed until October 25.

“The Western world is now following some of China’s playbook,” Chris Beauchamp, a market analyst at the financial firm IG, said of the reaction to the flu-like illness that for most people causes mild or moderate symptoms such as fever and cough but can hit elderly or sick people much harder.

Off California's coast, the Grand Princess cruise ship remained at sea with passengers confined to their cabins as US Vice President Mike Pence said 21 people on the ship – almost all crew members – had tested positive for the new coronavirus. Pence said the government was planning to bring the cruise ship into a “non-commercial port” where all the passengers and crew will be tested.

Thailand on Friday blocked a separate cruise ship from docking, worried because it carried dozens of passengers from Italy, which with 197 virus deaths is the center of Europe's epidemic.

In the US the number of cases surpassed 230, scattered across 18 states. The University of Washington announced Friday it would stop holding classes and teach students online, a decision affecting some 57,000 students. Washington state has at least 70 confirmed COVID-19 cases, most in the Seattle area, and has the highest US state death toll at 13. 

As the numbers kept growing in Europe, Serbia threatened to deploy the army to keep the virus at bay, and Hungary used virus fears to tighten its doors against migrants. 

In Switzerland, officials reported 210 new virus cases on Friday, up from 90 a day earlier, and the military was being readied to provide support services at hospitals.

“This wave will come, it will rise, but it will be over at some point,” said Daniel Koch, head of the department for communicable diseases at the country's federal office of health.

The Netherlands reported its first virus death Friday while Serbia, Slovakia, Peru and Cameroon announced their first infections. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is to declare a public health emergency after the nation’s first case of community transmission on Saturday, while Vietnam confirmed three new cases, raising the number of infections nationwide to 20.

Even Vatican City was hit, with the tiny city-state confirming its first case Friday. The Vatican has insisted that 83-year-old Pope Francis, who has been sick, only has a cold. 

WHO officials warned against having “false hopes” that the virus could fade away when warmer summer temperatures come to northern countries.

"Every day we slow down the epidemic is another day governments can prepare their health workers to detect, test, treat and care for patients,” Ghebreyesus told reporters.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP and REUTERS)

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