ROME (AFP) — Almost 300 million students worldwide faced weeks at home, with Italy the latest country to shut schools due to the deadly new coronavirus, as the International Monetary Fund urged an all-out global offensive against the epidemic.
More than 95,000 people have been infected and more than 3,200 have died worldwide from the virus, which by Thursday had reached some 80 countries and territories.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared an emergency after the state’s first coronavirus fatality — raising the U.S. death toll to 11 — and a cruise ship was kept offshore on the West Coast after passengers and crew members developed symptoms.
Switzerland on Thursday reported its first death from the outbreak, a 74-year-old woman, and Bosnia confirmed its first two cases.
The vast majority of global deaths and infections are in China, where the virus emerged late last year, prompting the country to quarantine entire cities, temporarily shut factories and close schools indefinitely.
As the virus has spread, other countries have also implemented extraordinary measures, with UNESCO saying Wednesday that 13 countries have closed schools, affecting 290.5 million children, while nine others have implemented localized closures.
While temporary school closures during crises are not new, UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay said: “The global scale and speed of the current educational disruption is unparalleled, and if prolonged, could threaten the right to education.”
Italy on Wednesday ordered schools and universities shut until March 15, ramping up its response as the national death toll rose to 107, the largest outbreak outside China, with the possible exception of Iran, which is widely believed to be underreporting its numbers.
South Korea — officially second to China in terms of infections, with cases jumping past 6,000 on Thursday — has postponed the start of the next school term until March 23.
In Japan, nearly all schools are closed after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for classes to be canceled through March and spring break, slated for late March through early April.
Schools also have shut in Iran, where 92 people have died from the disease, according to official figures.
The German health minister called the outbreak a “global pandemic” — a term the World Health Organization has not employed — meaning the virus is spreading in several regions through local transmission.
Thousands of people were stranded on the Grand Princess cruise ship off the California coast Wednesday as officials delayed its return to carry out tests on people on board.
A 71-year-old man who had been aboard the ship during its previous voyage to Mexico died of COVID-19.
The vessel belongs to Princess Cruises, the same company that operated a coronavirus-stricken ship held off Japan last month on which more than 700 people aboard tested positive, with six dying from the disease.
Infections now are rising faster abroad than they are in China, where 31 more deaths and 139 new cases were reported Thursday. China’s toll stands at 3,012, with more than 80,000 infections.
Agence France-Presse reporters even saw a handful of people trickling back into Wuhan, the quarantined city at the center of the epidemic, at the train station this week.
Beijing is now concerned about importing cases, with 20 infections brought from abroad so far — prompting several cities to require people arriving from hard-hit countries to go into self-quarantine.
Japan said Thursday that a state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping this spring has been postponed because containing the epidemic was “the biggest challenge” for the two countries.
Stock markets have tumbled over fears of recession, but Asian shares rallied on Thursday after a surge on Wall Street buoyed by global stimulus measures.
The IMF said it was making $50 billion in aid available for low-income and emerging-market countries to fight the epidemic, which it sees as a “serious threat” that would slow global growth to below last year’s 2.9%.
“At a time of uncertainty … it is better to do more than to do not enough,” IMF chief Kristalina Georgieva said.
In the United States, lawmakers reached a deal to provide more than $8 billion to fight the outbreak.
Governments worldwide are scrambling to contain the spread of the virus.
Japan will quarantine all arrivals from China and South Korea for two weeks, the Yomiuri daily newspaper reported, without specifying when the measures will take effect.
Saudi Arabia has suspended the year-round Islamic umrah pilgrimage, an unprecedented move that raises fresh uncertainty over the annual hajj.
New measures in Italy —where 11 towns with 50,000 residents have been under quarantine — include a monthlong nationwide ban on fan attendance at sports events, and advising people to avoid greetings such as kissing on the cheek or shaking hands.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said Italy could contain the outbreak for now, but if there is “exponential growth, not just Italy but any other country in the world would not be able to manage the situation.”
In Thailand, where the national tourism industry foresees a loss of 6 million visitors this year, an official for the southern island Koh Phangan announced Thursday the cancellation of a usually raucous full-moon party.
Earlier this week, Thailand’s health minister announced — and then swiftly rescinded — an order for all inbound travelers from 11 countries and territories to undergo quarantine.
Thailand has 47 confirmed cases of the coronavirus.
© Agence France-Presse