Italy announced a sweeping quarantine early Sunday, local time, restricting the movements of about a quarter of its population in a bid to limit contagions and end the virus’ advance at the epicentre of Europe’s outbreak.
Shortly after midnight, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte signed a decree affecting about 16 million people in the country’s prosperous north, including the Lombardy region and at least 14 provinces in neighbouring regions. The extraordinary measures will be in place until April 3.
“For Lombardy and for the other northern provinces that I have listed there will be a ban for everybody to move in and out of these territories and also within the same territory,” Conte said.
“Exceptions will be allowed only for proven professional needs, exceptional cases and health issues.”
Italy on Saturday saw its biggest daily increase in coronavirus cases since the outbreak began in the north of the country on February 21.
In its daily update, Italy’s civil protection agency said the number of people with the coronavirus rose by 1,247 in the last 24 hours, taking the total to 5,883. Another 36 people also died as a result of the virus, taking the total to 233.
There was chaos and confusion hours before Conte signed the decree, as word leaked that the government was planning the quarantine.
Packed bars and restaurants emptied quickly as people rushed to the train station in Padua’s Veneto region.
Travellers with suitcases, wearing face masks, gloves and carrying bottles of sanitising gel shoved their way on to trains.
Some regional politicians also were taken aback, Stefano Bonaccini, president of the Emilia Romagna region, said parts of the decree were confusing, and he asked the premier for more time to come up with “coherent” solutions.
The mayor of Asti, in the Piedmont region, posted an irate video on his Facebook page slamming Rome for not keeping regional leaders in the loop.
“Nobody told me,” Maurizio Rasero screamed, adding that he had hundreds of messages on his cell phone from alarmed citizens.
“It’s incredible that information that is so delicate and important would come out in the newspaper first, leaking everywhere even before local authorities learn about it.”
Public events limited around the world
Italy wasn’t the only country limiting activities. Around the world, events and festivals were called off. Travel restrictions and warnings were issued. A nose-dive in tourist traffic and possible disruptions to supply chains set off fears of a worldwide economic slowdown.
Saudi Arabia banned spectators at any sports competitions starting Saturday, local time. The NBA, as well as British and Japanese sports teams are considering doing the same, as baseball and soccer seasons are starting.
The spread of the virus has also taken a psychological toll. Authorities and manufacturers have been trying to assure panicking consumers they don’t need to hoard toilet paper, which has vanished from store shelves in various nations.
Of particular concern are passenger-packed cruise ships, many of which are confronting their own virus problems.
The Grand Princess cruise ship, where 21 people tested positive for the virus, was headed to the port of Oakland, California, after idling off San Francisco for several days. There is evidence the ship was the breeding ground for a deadly cluster of almost 20 cases during an earlier voyage.
In Egypt, a cruise ship on the Nile with more than 150 aboard was under quarantine in the southern city of Luxor after 12 positive tests.
Also Saturday, local time, the port of Penang in Malaysia turned away the cruise ship Costa Fortuna because 64 of the 2,000 aboard are from Italy. The ship had already been rejected by Thailand, and is now heading to Singapore.
And in Malta, which reported its first case of the virus Saturday, the MSC Opera ship agreed not to enter the Mediterranean country’s port amid local worries — even though there are no infections suspected on board. The ship continued to Messina, Sicily, where passengers were allowed to disembark after officials reviewed medical records.
World ‘in the grips of a pandemic’
While the global death toll has risen past 3,400, more people have now recovered from the virus than are sickened by it. As of Saturday, nearly 90,000 cases have been reported in Asia; more than 8,000 in Europe; 6,000 in the Mideast; about 450 in North America, Latin America and the Caribbean, and fewer than 50 cases reported so far in Africa.
While many scientists said the world is clearly in the grips of a pandemic — a serious global outbreak – the World Health Organization isn’t calling it that yet, saying the word might spook the world further.
The virus is still much less widespread than annual flu epidemics, which cause up to 5 million severe cases around the world and up to 650,000 deaths annually, according to the WHO.
In Iran, fears over the virus and the government’s waning credibility has become a major challenge to leaders already reeling from American sanctions. More than 1,000 infections were confirmed overnight, bringing the country’s total to 5,823 cases, including 145 deaths.
South Korea, the hardest-hit country outside China, reported 93 new cases on Sunday morning, taking the total to 7,134, with 50 deaths overall.
China on Sunday morning reported 44 new cases over the past 24 hours, the lowest level since it began publishing nationwide figures on Jan 20, and 27 new fatalities.
But while infections were increasing more slowly, the country was struck anew by tragedy: A hotel used for medical observation of people who had contact with coronavirus patients collapsed on Saturday, killing at least four people.
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