Coronavirus further isolates Iran, strains South Korea, Italy

DUBAI/BEIJING (Reuters) – Iran’s coronavirus death toll rose to 16 on Tuesday, the most outside China, heightening its international isolation as dozens of worst-hit nations from South Korea to Italy accelerated emergency measures to curb the epidemic’s global spread.

    Believed to come from wildlife in Wuhan city late last year, the flu-like disease has infected 80,000 people and killed 2,663in China. But the World Health Organization (WHO) says the epidemic there has peaked and been declining since Feb. 2.

    Beyond mainland China, however, it has jumped to about 29 countries and territories, with some three dozen deaths, according to a Reuters tally, and outbreaks in Iran, Italy and

South Korea of particular concern.

    “We are close to a pandemic but there is still hope,” said Raina MacIntyre, head of the biosecurity programme at the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales, using the term for a widespread global epidemic.

Global stock markets stabilised on Tuesday and Wall Street futures managed a solid bounce after a sharp selloff the previous day linked to the impact of the virus on global supply chains, with China at the heart of world industry.

    Iran’s outbreak, amid mounting U.S. sanctions pressure, threatens to leave it further cut off. Several countries suspended flights due to cases in travellers from Iran to

Canada, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and Iraq.

    Some neighbouring countries also closed borders, while Oman’s Khasab port halted import and export of goods with Iran.

    “It is an uninvited and inauspicious visitor. God willing we will get through … this virus,” said Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in a televised speech.

    Iran cancelled concerts and soccer matches nationwide, while schools and universities closed in many provinces. Many Iranians took to social media to accuse authorities of concealing the facts.

    Popular anger has been high over the handling of a Ukrainian passenger plane crash in January, which the military took three days to admit was caused by an Iranian missile fired in error.

Authorities say U.S. sanctions are hampering its response to the coronavirus by preventing imports of masks and medicines. 

    CHURCH UNDER SCRUTINY

    South Korea has the most virus cases outside China, with 977 infections and 10 deaths, the majority linked to the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in the city of Daegu, where the outbreak is believed to have begun with a 61-year-old woman.

    Authorities were to test all members of the church, estimated by media at about 215,000 people. President Moon Jae-in acknowledged the situation was “very grave”.

    In Europe, Italy has become a new front line, with 260 cases and seven deaths, most in the northern Lombardy and Veneto regions but one case emerging in Sicily, the first south of Rome.

    Italy’s tourist industry, which accounts for about 13% of the economy, fears a plunge amid restrictions on public events affecting soccer matches, cinemas and theatres.

    A planned three-week shoot in Italy for Tom Cruise’s seventh outing in the “Mission: Impossible” series was also postponed, while Milan cathedral was closed and the Venice carnival shut early.

    Airlines began restricting flights to Italy.

    Eurasia consultancy’s Scott Rosenstein said the bad news from Iran, South Korea and Italy had undercut confidence sustained human-to-human transmission can be limited to China.

A man wearing a face mask rides a bicycle in Wuhan, the epicentre of the novel coronavirus outbreak, Hubei province, China February 24, 2020. REUTERS/Stringer

“This worsening narrative around disease containment has overshadowed the cautious optimism narrative coming out of

China,” he said.

    “DON’T HANG ABOUT”

    In one of the first signs of fallout on global American military activities, the U.S. and South Korean militaries have said they may cut back joint training after it emerged 13 of Seoul’s troops had the virus.

    Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait and Oman reported their first new coronavirus cases, all in people who had been to Iran.

    With dozens of sporting events already hit, Japan, which has had four deaths and 850 cases, said it was premature to talk about cancelling the Tokyo Olympics due to start on July 24.

    The United States pledged $2.5 billion to fight the disease, with more than $1 billion going toward developing a vaccine.

    China reported a rise in new cases in Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak. But excluding those, it had just nine new infections on Monday, its fewest since Jan. 20.

    With the pace of new infections slowing, Beijing said restrictions on travel and movement that have paralysed activity in the world’s second-largest economy should begin to be lifted.

    An official with the Beijing Center for Disease Prevention and Control noted that supermarkets were becoming busier – but offered some pointers for shoppers.

    “Choose a supermarket with relatively low foot traffic and good ventilation, and prepare a shopping list before actually going to shop,” Liu Xiaofeng told reporters.

Slideshow (14 Images)

    “Don’t hang about. Don’t chit-chat.”

(Interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus here)

Reporting by Ryan Woo, Yilei Sun and Lusha Zhang in Beijing; Hyonhee Shin and Josh Smith in Seoul; Jeff Mason and Phil Stewart in Washington; Writing by Robert Birsel and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Nick Macfie

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