Latin America cuts Europe travel links over virus fears

Montevideo (AFP) –


Latin American states preparing for the onslaught of the coronavirus on Thursday tightened restrictions on travel links to Europe as the region recorded its third death in the outbreak.

Fears over the pandemic swept through Latin American markets, continuing a global rout that began in Asia early Thursday and forced the region's biggest carrier to slash flights.

The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) warned governments to get ready to cope with the pandemic.

"Countries must prepare their health services because there will not just be one or two cases," PAHO epidemiologist Marcos Espinal told AFP.

Though still low in terms of global figures, the number of cases in Latin America grew steadily to reach 255 in 15 countries, with three deaths.

The latest came in Guyana, where a 52-year-old local woman died after testing positive shortly after arriving from the United States last week.

Venezuela and Bolivia became the latest countries to suspend flights from Europe, where Italy's death toll from the virus soared past 1,000.

Latin America's biggest airline Latam said it was canceling 30 percent of its international flights for a two-month period due to falling demand over the coronavirus crisis.

The measure will apply mainly to flights from South America to Europe and the United States between April 1 and May 30, the company said.

- School closures -

As well as the travel restrictions, Bolivia's interim President Jeanine Anez also announced the closure of school and university classes.

"I am making an appeal to Bolivians for calm," Anez told reporters.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said there were no confirmed cases in his crisis-worn country, but said large public gatherings and concerts were now prohibited.

"We have to take gradually escalating measures," he said after announcing the suspension of all flights from Europe for a month.

Maduro also halted flights from neighboring Colombia, where President Ivan Duque declared a "health emergency" to help health services respond faster to the unfolding crisis.

Duque also banned gatherings of more than 500 people in the country, which has nine confirmed cases of 2019 coronavirus disease.

Other measures announced by Duque included suspending prison visits and banning cruise ships landing at the popular ports of Cartagena and Santa Marta.

"This is not a static process, but one that we are evaluating according to the circumstances and also according to the guidelines of the World Health Organization," he said.

Meanwhile, PAHO said it was sending support missions to countries with the weakest health services -- Haiti, Venezuela, Honduras and Paraguay.

"But everyone has to do their part -- governments, civil society, citizens -- because it is a multisectoral effort," Espinal told AFP.

Worst hit of the stock markets was the Sao Paulo exchange which halted trading twice in less than an hour on its way to losing 19 percent by mid-afternoon.

Mexico fell by more than 9.0 percent shortly after opening, with Buenos Aires dropping 9.52 percent.

The Bahamas government said it had decided to withdraw from hosting the 50th General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) in June.

It said it was "the most responsible action to take" given "we are faced with a major international health concern."