NEW YORK – The World Health Organization (WHO) has said the coronavirus outbreak has not reached the level of a pandemic but warned countries to step up preparations to deal with such a scenario, as new deaths and infections were reported in the Middle East and Europe.
While the global health agency is very concerned about the spread of the virus within countries such as South Korea, Iran and Italy, its chief said on Monday the infections in China – the country where it originated late last year – have been declining since early February, which proved that the virus can be contained.
“For the moment, we are not witnessing the uncontained global spread of this coronavirus, and we are not witnessing large-scale severe disease or death,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters in Geneva.
He added, however, that countries should be “doing everything we can to prepare for a potential pandemic.
“What we see are epidemics in different parts of the world affecting countries in different ways and requiring a tailored response.”
The WHO chief’s comments came as officials in Europe and the Middle East scramble to limit the spread of the outbreak and stock markets dipped on fears of a global slowdown due to the spread of the viral infection, officially known as COVID-19.
In Italy, where there have been more than 200 infections and seven deaths, authorities have set up roadblocks, called off football matches, sealed off the worst-affected towns and banned public gatherings across a wide area.
Al Jazeera’s Mohammed Jamjoom, reporting from central Milan in northern Italy, said there appeared to be a sense of alarm but not panic.
“People are taking precautions … but they are still out and about,” he said. “All that being said though, people are concerned because there were just a handful of cases last week and in the past few days they have spiked.”
In Iran, the government said 12 people had died nationwide, while five neighbouring countries – Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Afghanistan – reported their first cases of the virus, with those infected all having links to Iran. A WHO team is due to arrive in Iran on Tuesday.
South Korea, meanwhile, reported 231 new cases, taking its total to 833. Many are in its fourth-largest city, Daegu, which became more isolated with Asiana Airlines and Korean Air suspending flights there until next month. Mongolia earlier announced it would not allow flights from South Korea to land.
‘World in Wuhan’s debt’
Officially known as COVID-19, the virus has so spread to almost 30 countries and killed about two dozen people. In China, it has infected some 77,000 people and killed more than 2,500, most of them in the central province of Hubei.
Beijing postponed the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress – due to start on March 5 – for the first time in decades due to the coronavirus outbreak, state broadcaster CCTV said on Monday.
“So far, no new date has been set,” Al Jazeera’s Katrina Yu, reporting from Beijing, said.
“But analysts say when the meeting is rescheduled, that will be the biggest indicator that the country has finally won its so-called war against the coronavirus outbreak.”
Yu said 24 of China’s 31 provinces reported no new cases in the past 24 hours, while a visiting WHO team noted that a turning point had been reached in Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak and the capital of Hubei.
“They’re at a point now where the number of cured people coming out of hospitals each day is much more than the sick going in,” Bruce Aylward, head of the WHO delegation in China, said in Beijing.
He added that China’s actions, especially in Wuhan, had probably prevented hundreds of thousands of cases and urged the rest of the world to learn the lesson of acting fast.
“The world is in your debt,” Aylward said, referring to the people of Wuhan. “The people of that city have gone through an extraordinary period and they’re still going through it.”
Meanwhile, the virus is taking an increasingly heavy toll on the global economy, with many factories in China closed or subdued due to the quarantines.
The surge of cases outside mainland China triggered sharp falls in global share markets as investors fled to safe havens. European share markets suffered their biggest slump since mid-2016, gold soared to a seven-year high, oil tumbled nearly 5 percent and the Korean won fell to its lowest level since August.
Wall Street dived around 3 percent after it opened as the ugly sell-off spread. Italian shares tumbled nearly 5 percent.
The International Monetary Fund warned on Sunday that the epidemic was putting a “fragile” global economic recovery at risk, while the White House said the shutdowns in China will have an impact on the United States.
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