BANGKOK — The accelerating spread of the coronavirus created new barriers between the world’s regions and peoples Thursday, draining colour from India’s spring festivities, closing Bethlehem’s Nativity Church, contributing to a British airline’s collapse and blocking Italians from visiting elderly relatives in nursing homes.
As China, after many arduous weeks, appeared to be winning its epic, costly battle against the new virus, the fight was just revving up in newly affected areas of the globe, unleashing disruptions that profoundly impacted billions of people.
The World Health Organization urged all countries to “push this virus back,” a call to action reinforced by figures showing there are now about 17 times as many new infections outside China as in it. To date, the virus has infected nearly 97,000 people and killed over 3,300.
“The virus doesn’t care about race and belief or colour. It is attacking us all, equally,” said Ian MacKay, who studies viruses at the University of Queensland in Australia. “We’re looking at a pandemic in all practical reality.”
As Chinese manufacturers gradually reopened their factories, anti-virus barriers went up elsewhere.
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In Italy, workers in latex gloves pinned “closed” notices on school gates, enforcing a 10-day shutdown of the education system. Italy’s sports-mad fans are also barred from stadiums until April 3.
School closures nationwide left many Italian children in the care of their grandparents, undercutting government efforts to shield older Italians from the virus that is proving a greater threat to the elderly than others. Italy has the world’s oldest population after Japan.
Parks in Rome overflowed Thursday with children and grandparents. Grandfather Lorenzo Romano, tasked with making lunch for his grandchildren, saw a positive side to the situation.
“Altogether it makes me happy because then I have them around me more,” he said.
A government decree that took effect Thursday urged the famously demonstrative Italians to stay at least 1 metre (3 feet) apart from each other. Italy also placed temporary restrictions on visiting relatives in nursing homes and urged the elderly not to go outside unless absolutely necessary.
Italy, the epicenter of the outbreak in Europe, has registered 107 deaths, the same number as Iran, which has also closed schools and universities.
To fight its spreading outbreak, the Islamic Republic introduced checkpoints to limit travel between major cities. Iranians were urged to reduce their use of paper money and have gas station attendants fill their tanks.
Amid the string of bad news, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani urged state television to offer “happier” programs to entertain those stuck at home.
“I urge all artists, scientists, psychologists and all who can bring smiles to people’s faces, come into the social media,” he said. “Today, words that make people tired are no longer advantageous.”
Virus fears also impacted the joyful Indian celebration of Holi, in which Hindu revelers celebrate the arrival of spring with bursts of colour, including bright powders smeared on faces. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other leaders said they wouldn’t attend Holi events and the Holi Moo Festival in New Delhi was cancelled.
Travellers faced ever-greater disruptions, as countries sought to keep the virus out. But South Africa confirmed its first case Thursday, becoming the seventh African nation to report infections.
Australia banned travellers from South Korea who aren’t Australian citizens or permanent residents, following similar bans for China and Iran.
Indonesia announced restrictions on travellers from specific parts of Iran, Italy and South Korea after previously banning travel from China. The United Arab Emirates warned its people not to travel anywhere abroad.
Germany’s Lufthansa and its subsidiaries Austrian Airlines and Swiss said they will cancel all flights to and from Israel for three weeks starting Sunday after Israeli authorities announced tough restrictions on travellers from several countries because of the new virus.
The storied Nativity Church in the biblical city of Bethlehem, built atop the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born, was being closed to the tens of thousands of visitors and worshippers who had been expected for the Easter holiday next month. Saudi Arabia has barred citizens from Islam’s holiest sites.
Japan said visitors from China and South Korea would need to complete a two-week quarantine at a government facility and be barred from public transit. Sri Lankans arriving from Italy, South Korea and Iran will be quarantined at a hospital once used for leprosy patients.
In the United States, where 11 have died from the virus, hundreds of people were placed in self-quarantines due to cases in a New York suburb.
In many places, shoppers emptied stocks of hand sanitizer and face masks. France prepared to enforce price caps on disinfectant gels.
On social networks, at family dinner tables and in offices, anxiety infected conversations.
“A new risk is always scarier than one we’re familiar with because it has elements of the unknown,” said David Ropeik, who authored the book “How Risky Is It, Really?”
In South Korea, which has the highest number of infections outside China, exports of masks will be prohibited beginning Friday and people will be limited to buying two masks a week.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sent a letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in to express condolences over the health crisis. Officials in Seoul said Kim “underlined his unwavering friendship and trust toward President Moon and said that he will continue to quietly send his best wishes for President Moon to overcome” the outbreak. It wasn’t clear if the letter was an attempt to improve strained ties between the two Korean nations.
Markets in Asia and Europe rose Thursday after a surge on Wall Street, but fear of economic fallout from the virus’ spread remained. Ministers from the oil-producing countries in OPEC were weighing slashing output to control plunging prices.
The outlook for the travel industry is increasingly grim. The International Air Transport Association said the outbreak could cost airlines as much as $113 billion in lost revenue and the struggling British airline Flybe collapsed Thursday.
In China, where hospitals were releasing hundreds of recovered patients, officials reported 139 new cases of infection and 31 more deaths. In all, the country has reported 80,409 cases and 3,012 deaths. More than two-thirds of those in China who contracted the virus have been discharged from hospitals, officials said. Of those who remain hospitalized, about 6,000 are in serious condition.
A state visit to Japan by Chinese President Xi Jinping was postponed. The trip, set for April, was to be the first for a Chinese leader since 2008.
Sedensky is an AP National Writer. Leicester reported from Paris. Contributing to this report were Kim Tong-Hyung and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea; Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo; Bharatha Mallawarachi in Colombo, Sri Lanka; Ken Moritsugu in Beijing; Aniruddha Ghosal and Ashok Sharma in New Delhi; Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Nicole Winfield in Rome, Geir Moulson in Berlin and Danica Kirka in London.
The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.
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