Stocks savaged, Italy on lockdown, prisons in uproar as coronavirus spreads

Stocks savaged, Italy on lockdown, prisons in uproar as coronavirus spreads

Italy virus
Armed Italian Carabinieri police officers at a check point at the border between the quarantined provinces of Modena and Bologna, in Valsamoggia near Bologna, as Italy battles COVID-19. Piero CRUCIATTI/AFP

ROME: All of Italy under lockdown, reeling financial markets and rioting prisoners made clear on Monday (Mar 9) how the global coronavirus epidemic was extending its reach into all aspects of social and economic life.

Major European stock markets dived more than 7 per cent, Japanese indexes fell over 5 per cent and US markets sank over 7 per cent after Saudi Arabia launched an oil price war with Russia that sent investors already spooked by the coronavirus outbreak running for the exits.

In Italy, scene of Europe's worst outbreak with infections and deaths soaring even as they slow in China, took its most drastic steps yet to contain the outbreak. 

It ordered everyone across the country not to move around other than for work and emergencies, banned all public gatherings and suspended sporting events, including soccer matches.

READ: Italy has highest COVID-19 fatalities after China as death toll triples

Deaths in Milan's Lombardy region - which had already been on lockdown with cinemas, theatres and museums closed and restaurant hours restricted - jumped 25 per cent in a day to 333, while the national death toll soared by 97 to 463, the highest in the world after China.

Italy shoppers
A man wearing a respiratory mask shops under the arcades of Piazza Vittorio Emanuele II in the Esquillino district of Rome, as Italy battles COVID-19. Tiziana FABI/AFP

Over 9,000 people have become infected in Italy in little over two weeks, out of a global total of more than 110,000 in over 100 countries. Some 3,900 people have died across the world, the vast majority in mainland China.

"Now that the virus has a foothold in so many countries, the threat of a pandemic has become very real" World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news conference.

But he welcomed Italy's tough measures, noting that just four countries - China, South Korea, Italy and Iran - accounted for 93 per cent of cases worldwide. Israel ordered anyone entering the country to self-quarantine for 14-days on Monday.

"It would be the first pandemic that could be controlled," Tedros added. "The bottom line is we are not at the mercy of the virus."

READ: WHO praises Italy's 'genuine sacrifices' to slow virus

TRUMP TO MEET OFFICIALS

In the United States, which has reported well over 500 cases and 26 deaths, the administration scrambled on Monday to assure Americans it was responding to the outbreak as stock markets plunged and top health officials urged some people to avoid cruise ships, air travel and big public gatherings.

US President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly played down the threat posed by the flu-like virus, was planning to meet with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and other members of his economic team to weigh possible action, an administration official told Reuters. Paid sick leave is among policy steps being considered, the official said on condition of anonymity.

A source also said top Wall Street executives had been invited to the White House on Wednesday for talks on the coronavirus.

Around the world, flights have been cancelled, communities and cruise liners isolated, and concerts and trade fairs postponed. Even the Tokyo Summer Olympics are in doubt.

READ: Cruise ship facing coronavirus quarantine arrives at Port of Oakland, California

While some countries, such as China and Italy, have turned to drastic measures to try to delay the spread of the virus, others remain in a "containment" phase, where individual cases can still be tracked.

Britain, with five deaths from almost 300 confirmed cases, said it would remain in that phase for now, allowing major gatherings and sporting events to continue, while making extensive preparations to move to the "delay phase."

In neighbouring Ireland, acting Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said a 3 billion euro (US$3.4 billion) coronavirus package had been agreed.

Funds set aside for a potential sudden rupture in trade ties with Britain, which has left the European Union, were to be diverted to coronavirus mitigation.

Perhaps just as dramatically, Varadkar announced cancellation of all parades planned for the national St. Patrick's Day festival on Mar 17, including one in Dublin that draws more than 500,000 people from all over the world.

READ: Dublin to cancel St Patrick's Day Parade over coronavirus

In Spain, schools were closed in the town of Labastida near Vitoria in the Basque country after nearly 150 cases of coronavirus were identified nearby out of around 1,000 nationwide.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said an emergency economic plan had been prepared.

SAUDI FINES

In the Gulf region, where most cases stem from travel from Iran, the emphasis has been on border control. Saudi Arabia said it would fine people who did not disclose health information and travel details at entry up to US$133,000.

Iran, with 7,161 cases and 237 deaths, said it was temporarily releasing about 70,000 prisoners because of the coronavirus.

China and South Korea both reported a slowdown in new infections. Mainland China, outside the outbreak centre of Hubei province, recorded no new locally transmitted coronavirus cases for the second day.

South Korea reported 165 new cases, bringing the national tally to 7,478, while the death toll rose by one to 51.

READ: South Korea sees lowest new virus infections for 2 weeks

With the rate of increase in new infections at its lowest in 11 days, President Moon Jae-in said South Korea could enter the "phase of stability" soon.

In Italy, that phase still seems far off.

Authorities said seven prisoners died as riots spread through more than 25 jails across the country over measures imposed to contain the coronavirus.

Police and fire trucks massed outside the main prison in the northern town of Modena, the site of some of the worst violence.

But law enforcement was busy elsewhere too.

Barkeepers in Rome and Milan said police had visited them to warn that they risked closure if they let customers huddle together at the counter, or crowd behind the till.

"We went into the cafe together but were told to stand far apart. It was really odd because we are friends," said Ilaria Frezza, a 21-year-old student.

But the bar she was in was, in fact, almost deserted.

"I wish I was having problems keeping people apart, but that's the least of my worries," said Franco Giovinazzo, who runs the Spazio Caffe in Rome. "The real problem is there's no-one here."

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Source: AFP/de

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