Fear of coronavirus pandemic grows but China eases curbs as new infections fall

BEIJING/SEOUL (Reuters) – Fears of a coronavirus pandemic grew on Monday after sharp rises in new cases reported in Iran, Italy and South Korea but China relaxed restrictions on movements in several places including Beijing as its rates of new infections eased.

People wearing face masks walk along a street, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the new coronavirus, in Beijing, China February 24, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

The surge of infections outside mainland China triggered steep falls in Asian shares and Wall Street stock futures as investors fled to safe havens such as gold. Oil prices tumbled and the Korean won fell to its lowest since August.

“There is lots of bad news on the coronavirus front,” Shane Oliver, chief economist at Sydney-based wealth manager AMP, wrote in a note.

The Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) said it no longer had a process for declaring a pandemic but the coronavirus outbreak remained an international emergency.

South Korea reported 70 new cases taking its total to 833, media reported, as its hard-hit fourth-largest city of Daegu became more isolated with Asiana Airlines and Korean Air suspending flights there until next month.

“If we cannot block the spread in the Daegu region in an effective way, there are high possibilities it would lead to a nationwide transmission,” Vice Health Minister Kim Kang-lip told reporters.

Iran, which announced its first two cases on Wednesday, said it had confirmed 43 cases and eight deaths. Most of the infections were in the Shi’ite Muslim holy city of Qom.

More cases appeared in the Middle East with Bahrain reporting its first case, the state news agency said, and Kuwait reporting three cases involving people who had been in Iran.

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan imposed travel and immigration restrictions on Iran. But Afghanistan reported its first case on Monday, in the western border province of Herat, again involving someone who had recently been in Iran, officials said.

The WHO has been saying for weeks it dreads the disease reaching countries with weak health systems.

In Europe, French Health Minister Olivier Veran said he would talk to his European counterparts to discuss how best to cope with a possible epidemic in Europe, after Italy reported 150 infections – the biggest outbreak in Europe of the flu-like virus – from just three before Friday.

A fourth person infected with the coronavirus had died in Italy, RAI radio reported on Monday.

For an interactive graphic tracking the global spread of coronavirus, click here

‘SEVERE AND COMPLEX’

China postponed the annual meeting of its parliament and would ban the illegal trade and consumption of wildlife, state media reported. The virus originated late last year, apparently in an illegal wildlife market in the city of Wuhan.

But in good news for China, ore than 20 province-level jurisdictions including Beijing and Shanghai, reported zero infections, the best showing since the outbreak began.

President Xi Jinping urged businesses to get back to work though he said the epidemic was still “severe and complex, and prevention and control work is in the most difficult and critical stage”.

Yunnan, Guangdong, Shanxi and Guizhou provinces lowered their coronavirus emergency response measures from the most serious level, joining the provinces of Gansu and Liaoning to relax restrictions on movements.

Excluding central Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak, mainland China reported 11 new cases, the lowest since the national health authority started publishing nationwide figures on Jan. 20.

In the Hubei capital of Wuhan, where its 11 million people have been under virtual lockdown for weeks, officials even said healthy people would be allowed to leave the city for crucial operations, but authorities later revoked the decision.

The coronavirus has infected nearly 77,000 people and killed more than 2,500 in China, most in Hubei.

China reported 409 new cases on the mainland, down from 648 a day earlier, taking the total number of infections to 77,150 cases as of Feb. 23. The death toll rose by 150 to 2,592.

Xi said on Sunday the outbreak would have a relatively big, but short-term impact on the economy and the government would step up policy adjustments to help cushion the blow.

It was also allocated 99.5 billion yuan ($14.16 billion) to control the outbreak, a top official said.

TOWNS SEALED

Outside mainland China, the outbreak has spread to about 29 countries and territories, with a death toll of about two dozen, according to a Reuters tally.

Italy sealed off the worst-affected towns and banned public gatherings in much of the north, including halting the carnival in Venice, where there were two cases.

Austria briefly suspended train services over the Alps from Italy after two travelers coming from Italy showed symptoms of fever.

Slideshow (16 Images)

The two tested negative for the coronavirus but Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer said a task force would meet on Monday to discuss whether to introduce border controls with Italy.

In South Korea, authorities reported a seventh death and dozens more cases on Monday. Of the new cases, 115 were linked to a church in the city of Daegu.

Japan had 773 cases as of late Sunday, mostly on a cruise ship quarantined near Tokyo. A third passenger, a Japanese man in his 80s, died on Sunday.

Reporting by Ryan Woo in Beijing and Hyonhee Shin in Seoul; Additional reporting by Judy Hua, Huizhong Wu, Yawen Chen, Lusha Zhang and David Kirton in Beijing, Engen Tham in Shangai, Joyce Lee and Cynthia Kim in Seoul, Tom Westbrook in Singapore; Writing by Stephen Coates & Robert Birsel; Editing by Lincoln Feast & Simon Cameron-Moore

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