Coronavirus heightens Iran's isolation, tests South Korea and Italy

Reuters , Tuesday 25 Feb 2020

WHO-China joint mission leader
Team leader of the joint mission between World Health Organization (WHO) and China on COVID-19, Bruce Aylward shows graphics during a press conference at the WHO headquarters in Geneva on February 25, 2020. (AFP)

Iran's coronavirus death toll rose to 16 on Tuesday, the highest outside China, increasing its international isolation as nations from South Korea to Italy accelerated emergency measures to curb the epidemic's global spread.

Believed to come from wildlife in Wuhan city late last year, the flu-like disease has infected 80,000 people and killed 2,663 in China. But the World Health Organization (WHO) says the epidemic there has peaked and been declining since Feb. 2.

Beyond mainland China, however, it has jumped to about 30 countries and territories, with some three dozen deaths, according to a Reuters tally. Growing outbreaks in Iran, Italy and South Korea are of particular concern.

Iran's outbreak, amid mounting U.S. sanctions pressure, threatens to leave it further cut off. Several countries suspended flights due to cases in travellers from Iran to Canada, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and Iraq.

Some neighbours also closed borders, while Oman's Khasab port halted imports and exports with Iran.

"It is an uninvited and inauspicious visitor. God willing we will get through ... this virus," Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in a televised speech.

The deputy health minister and a member of parliament were among those infected.

Iran cancelled concerts and soccer matches nationwide, and schools and universities closed in many provinces. Many Iranians took to social media to accuse authorities of concealing facts.

Tehran says U.S. sanctions are hampering its response to the coronavirus by preventing imports of masks and medicines.

Global stocks sank to their lowest levels in over two months on Tuesday in anxiety over the coronavirus' spread and its damage to the world economy.

"We are close to a pandemic but there is still hope," said Raina MacIntyre, head of a biosecurity programme at the University of New South Wales, using the term for a widespread global epidemic.


Church under scrutiny

South Korea has the most virus cases outside China, with 977 infections and 10 deaths, the majority linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in the city of Daegu, where the outbreak is believed to have begun with a 61-year-old woman.

Authorities were testing all church members estimated at about 215,000 people. There was misery too for 34 South Korean newlyweds whose honeymoons on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius became a holiday from hell after they were put in isolation.

In Europe, Italy is the front line, with more than 280 cases and seven deaths. The outbreak is spreading from its origins in the northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto, with new cases reported in central Tuscany, the coastal region of Liguria and Sicily in the south.

Italy's tourist industry, which accounts for about 13% of the economy, fears a plunge amid travel warnings and restrictions on soccer matches, cinemas and theatres.

A planned three-week shoot in Italy for Tom Cruise's seventh outing in the "Mission: Impossible" series was postponed, while Milan cathedral was closed and Venice carnival cancelled.

Airlines began restricting flights to Italy, as prices for masks and gels skyrocketed.

Eurasia consultancy's Scott Rosenstein said the bad news from Iran, South Korea and Italy had undercut confidence sustained human-to-human transmission can be limited to China.

"This worsening narrative around disease containment has overshadowed the cautious optimism narrative coming out of China," he said. "Markets have responded accordingly."


Don't hang about

Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait and Oman reported their first new coronavirus cases, all in people who had been to Iran. Switzerland and Croatia also reported first cases.

Spain reported its first case on the mainland, a woman woman from Barcelona who had visited northern Italy. A four-star hotel in Spain's Canary Islands was earlier locked down when a husband, and then his wife, tested positive.

With dozens of sporting events already hit, Japan, which has had four deaths and 850 cases, said it was premature to talk about cancelling the Tokyo Olympics due to start on July 24.

And European soccer body UEFA said it was unclear if the Euro 2020 tournament, scheduled for June and July, may be affected. Italy is one of 12 host nations.

China reported a rise in new cases in Hubei province, the epicentre. But excluding those, it had just nine new infections on Monday, its fewest since Jan. 20.

With the pace of new infections slowing, Beijing said restrictions on travel and movement that have paralysed activity in the world's second-largest economy should begin to be lifted.

A official with the Beijing Center for Disease Prevention and Control noted that supermarkets were becoming busier - but offered some pointers for shoppers.

"Choose a supermarket with relatively low foot traffic and good ventilation, and prepare a shopping list before actually going to shop," Liu Xiaofeng told reporters.

"Don't hang about. Don't chit-chat."

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