Virus toll soars in locked-down Italy as pace slows in China

by Jastinder Khera and Dmitry Zaks with Laurent Thomet in Beijing
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The Spanish Steps in Rome are deserted after sunset, after Italy imposed unprecedented restrictions to check the spread of the new coronavirus and the death toll soared to 631 people

Locked-down Italy on Tuesday recorded its deadliest day of the novel coronavirus outbreak, as airlines halted flights and neighbouring countries clamped down on borders of the worst-hit country outside of China.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping meanwhile sought to ease concerns in the country where the virus was first detected in December, making his first visit to the epicentre of Wuhan and declaring the spread in the central city and Hubei province to be "basically curbed."

On the world's financial markets, stocks and oil bounced back on hopes of US economic stimulus measures, after suffering their biggest one-day losses in more than a decade on Monday.

Fallout from the virus has extended across society in countries around the world, with major sports events postponed or called off, cinemas shut and large gatherings banned.

On Tuesday, it spilled into US politics, with Democratic presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden both cancelling campaign rallies.

Official figures showed daily infections in China are at their lowest level since record-keeping began in January, with 19 new infections and 17 deaths recorded on Tuesday, after a similar flatlining of cases in South Korea.

By contrast, Europe's outbreak surged, with Italy's toll rising by 168 to 631 dead from COVID-19 (the official name for the virus), with 10,149 infected in just over two weeks.

China remains the hardest-hit overall with more than 80,000 cases and over 3,000 deaths, out of a global total of 117,339 cases and 4,251 deaths across 107 countries and territories, according to an AFP tally.

Reflecting the differing stages of the outbreak, China relaxed some of its most severe restrictions in Hubei province at the same moment as several European countries went on full alert mode.

A slew of airlines announced they would cut all flights to Italy for the next few weeks, while a number of European countries announced the closure of schools and bans on mass public events.

Slovenia said it was closing its border with Italy, while Austria announced bans on trains and flights to the neighbouring country.

French President Emmanuel Macron said Slovenia and Austria had made "bad decisions" with the drastic measures but warned that his country was "just at the beginning" of its outbreak.

Chile said it was would quarantine all travellers arriving from Italy and Spain.

In the Middle East, Iran registered 54 new deaths -- the highest single-day toll so far in the country with the third-deadliest outbreak in the world. A total of 291 people have now died in the Islamic Republic.

Turkey, a major hub linking Europe and western Asia, registered its first case on Tuesday, as did the Democratic Republic of Congo.

- 'Just the beginning' -

Strict lockdowns and travel restrictions were apparently successful in China but faced a rocky start in Italy, a country of 60 million people where Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told residents they should travel only for the most urgent work or health reasons.

While squares in Milan and Rome were emptied of their usual bustle and traffic, some residents were confused as to whether they were even allowed to leave their homes for everyday tasks like shopping.

The confusion forced the government to clarify its decree and warn against panic-buying.

Pope Francis also seemed to muddy the waters, holding a mass in which he urged priests to go out and visit the sick -- something specifically discouraged by Conte.

Sport schedules have been wrecked across the continent. A day after Italy cancelled all domestic sport, France, Spain, Germany and Portugal announced matches will be played in empty stadia, while some games in the Netherlands were cancelled.

In a rare glimmer of positive news, the remaining guests at a hotel on lockdown in Spain's Canary Islands left the building after a 14-day quarantine, to the cheers and applause of hotel workers and medical staff.

- Officials at risk -

In the United States, reports have suggested President Donald Trump could be vulnerable after several senior Republicans quarantined themselves because they had been in contact with a virus sufferer.

Trump said Tuesday he would be happy to get a coronavirus test but has been told there is no need.

"I feel very good but I guess it's not a big deal to get tested and it's something I would do," he told reporters in Washington.

But the White House doctor declared there was "no reason to do it," Trump added. "There's no symptoms, no anything."

There are concerns that the US could become another hotspot, with at least 26 deaths and 605 confirmed infections so far.

Trump had promised to announce "major" economic measures on Tuesday, but no concrete details had emerged by early evening.

In New York, the UN closed its headquarters to the public, while major US universities have been forced to cancel classes and move lessons online.

On the West Coast -- where most of the US deaths have occurred -- the Grand Princess cruise ship has docked at California's port of Oakland, for more than 2,400 passengers to be taken into treatment or placed in quarantine, in a delicate, days-long operation.

burs-lc/dl/to

The Spanish Steps in Rome are deserted after sunset, after Italy imposed unprecedented restrictions to check the spread of the new coronavirus and the death toll soared to 631 people

A vendor and customer wearing facemasks as a preventive measure against the novel coronavirus interact at a fruit and vegetable store in Beijing

The spread of coronavirus

China said the epicentre of the new coronavirus outbreak, Hubei, would relax travel restrictions to allow healthy people to move within the hard-hit province

The bus transporting Valencia's players arrives at the Mestalla Stadium in Valencia before football match between Valencia and Atalanta that will be played behind closed doors in light of the virus outbreak