Washington – US President Donald Trump defended Thursday his shock decision to impose a 30-day ban on travel from mainland Europe over the coronavirus pandemic that sent markets into a tailspin and sparked panic among stranded travellers.
As the number of number of cases and fatalities surged in Europe, governments rolled out even tighter restrictions on travel and public gatherings and major sports events were cancelled across the globe.
Europe’s epicentre Italy confirmed a grim milestone as its death toll passed 1,000, while neighbouring France announced it would close all schools nationwide and urged people over the age of 70 to stay home.
The virus, which first emerged in China in December, has quickly spread across the continent even as cases in Asia have levelled out in recent days.
China even claimed “the peak” of the epidemic had passed on its shores, as the number of infections and deaths jumped dramatically in Italy, Spain and Iran.
The virus has so far infected more than 130,000 people globally and killed over 4,900, according to an AFP tally.
Trump’s sweeping travel ban — which notably excluded Britain and Ireland — drew an angry response from EU chiefs Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel who rebuked his “unilateral action” and called for cooperation to fight the pandemic.
But Trump defended the move, saying Thursday “we had to move quickly”, while conceding the measures would have a “a big impact” on the economy.
His remarks came as news emerged that he met at the weekend with the Brasilian president’s communications chief who has tested positive for the virus.
But the White House insisted there was no need for Trump to get tested for the virus, which has infected over 1,300 people and killed 38 in the United States.
– ‘Horror show’ –
Markets nosedived on Thursday, with London, Paris and Frankfurt recording their worst day in decades as fears mounted of a global economic slowdown.
The European Central Bank unveiled a host of measures to support the economy, following big-bang interventions by the US Federal Reserve and the Bank of England.
The stock slump was a “horror show” sparked by the travel ban, which heightened “the likelihood of a global recession,” said Connor Campbell, an analyst at Spreadex.
The chaos extended to Europe’s airports, where confused travellers scrambled to redraw their plans.
“We just got off our plane and we’re going to go straight back — we can’t believe it,” said 29-year-old Tiara Streng, queueing with three friends at London’s Heathrow Airport for a return flight to Colorado.
Europe is struggling to keep a lid on the virus.
Italy clocked 189 new deaths Thursday — and more than 15,000 total infections — while Spain’s infections neared 3,000, with more than 80 fatalities.
Italy is in the grip of a lockdown never before seen in peacetime. It has ordered the closure of all stores except pharmacies and food shops in a move that has emptied world-famous tourist sites in Rome, Venice and Florence.
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Some people are struggling with the restrictions.
“Bloody coronavirus, now we’re even denied our coffee? What kind of world are we living in?” lamented Roberto Fichera, a retired man in his 80s, on finding his favourite bar closed near the Colosseum in Rome.
Italy is not the only country to take unprecedented measures. Slovakia and the Czech Republic banned travellers from a host of countries on Thursday, while Ireland closed all its schools after recording its first death this week.
Other countries in the region readied for the worst, including Britain which said the real number of cases on its soil could reach 10,000 — it has 590 confirmed cases.
The EU health agency warned the risk was high that healthcare systems in the bloc will be overwhelmed.
– Peak in China –
As the crisis deepened in Europe, China appeared to be making headway against the outbreak, which has infected and killed more people in the country than anywhere else in the world.
Another 11 people died in China on Thursday — bringing their toll to 3,169 deaths — the lowest daily increase since late January.
“The peak of the epidemic in China has passed,” said National Health Commission spokesman Mi Feng.
The World Health Organization said the pandemic remained controllable, urging countries not to give up the fight to stop the virus spreading.
“The idea that countries should shift from containment to mitigation is wrong and dangerous,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
Hotspots have rapidly emerged elsewhere in the world, including Iran, which announced 75 new deaths on Thursday bringing the total to 429 with more than 10,000 infections.
South Korea also saw a rapid explosion of cases in recent weeks, though new infections and deaths have steadied in recent days.
– Hanks hit –
Hollywood superstar Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson are in isolation in Australia after testing positive for the virus, joining the ranks of politicians and sports stars that have come down with the infection.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife are self-isolating as she undergoes tests after returning from a speaking engagement with “mild flu-like symptoms.”
Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association have all delayed or suspended their seasons over the virus after a slew of football and rugby matches in Europe were called off.
Questions are also mounting about the fate of the Tokyo Olympics, though organisers have said they are confident that the Games will begin as scheduled in July.