BERLIN — Monday marked another milestone in the global battle to outwit the new coronavirus, as reported infections in the rest of the world overtook those in China. Millions of people in Europe and the United States began holing up at home amid rapid-fire border closures announced by one nation after the other.
Spain officially became the fourth-most infected country in the world, surpassing South Korea as its arc of contagion curved higher.
Only China, Italy and Iran have more confirmed cases of COVID-19 than Spain, where the number of infections increased overnight by roughly 20% to 9,191 and the number of fatalities rose to 309, according to the Spanish Health Ministry. The actual figure was presumed to be even higher, because Spain switched to a new system of reporting.
Spain’s interior minister said European Union nations on Monday would discuss possibly closing the country’s borders.
“It is a real possibility to fight against the expansion of the virus and to guarantee the health of European citizens,” said minister Fernando Grande Marlaska.
Portugal and Spain have already halted tourism across their 1,200-kilometre (750-mile) shared border. Goods and workers will still be allowed to cross.
Spain has also already deployed the army to the streets, ordered its 46 million people to stay home and taken control of private hospitals. Marlaska said a total lockdown could be the next step. Nearly 500 people are under intensive care in Spanish hospitals for the virus, 70% of them in Madrid, the capital.
The measures echoed those already in place in Italy and now being rolled out in other parts of Europe and the United States. Serbia called out the army to help enforce the virus restrictions.
Among the most drastic measures, the Swiss city-state of Geneva banned gatherings of more than five people, though exceptions were made for business meetings that followed public health rules.
“What we don’t want is people having picnics” with friends or relatives, said Geneva official Henri Della Casa.
Germany, which saw its infections increase by over 1,000 in 24 hours, restricted border crossings with France, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark and Luxembourg, while insisting that the flow of goods wouldn’t be affected. The move was a sharp turnabout from the government’s insistence last week that border controls weren’t an effective way to curb the outbreak.
“We have a window of time at the moment to slow the spread of the virus,” German government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer told reporters.
Still, some countries resisted such strong measures. Unlike most of its European neighbours, Britain has not closed bars and restaurants, banned large events or shut schools to slow the spread of the virus. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack, said closing schools hadn’t been ruled out, but “the scientific and medical advice is that that’s not a step which we should be taking at this point in time.”
In Asia, where the virus has been a brutal fact of life for months, authorities urged vigilance to keep hard-won gains against the microscopic foe that has shut down travel, severely rattled financial markets, upended daily life and was threatening the livelihoods of millions.
“If we loosen our grip on the quarantine, it could be just a matter of time for the embers of small-scale cluster infections to be revived,” the South Korean Dong-a Ilbo newspaper said in an editorial Monday.
New rules governing daily life cascaded around the globe, restricting bars, restaurants, school and work. Resorts closed on the Las Vegas strip. Many restaurants offered only takeout, if they were open at all. Schools, concerts, sporting events — even small-scale St. Patrick’s Day parties — were cancelled.
In the United States, health officials recommended a limit to groups of 50 or more people and a government expert said a 14-day national shutdown may be needed. Americans returning from abroad encountered chaotic airport health screenings that clearly broke all virus-fighting rules against having packed crowds close together.
For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But severe illness can occur, especially in the elderly and people with existing health problems. Worldwide, over 169,000 people have been infected, 6,500 have died and over 77,000 have recovered, most of them in China.
Governors in California, Illinois and Ohio told all bars and restaurants to close or reduce their number of customers. New York City will shutter the nation’s largest public school system as early as Tuesday, sending over 1.1 million children home.
With fears increasing that the pandemic will depress U.S. economic growth, the Federal Reserve took emergency action by slashing its benchmark interest rate to near zero and deciding to buy $700 billion in Treasury and mortgage bonds.
China, where the virus was first detected in December, now accounts for less than half of the world’s cases, according to Johns Hopkins University. On Monday, China relaxed travel restrictions in the hardest-hit virus province of Hubei, sending thousands of workers back to jobs at factories desperate to get production going again.
The official Xinhua News Agency reported Monday that cities just outside the epicenter of Wuhan were chartering buses to send back to work residents who had returned home for the Lunar New Year in late January.
The move came as Chinese officials said the outbreak had mostly run its course domestically but they remained vigilant against imported cases. Starting Monday, travellers arriving in Beijing from overseas will be quarantined for 14 days in designated facilities at their own expense.
While traffic has begun returning to Beijing, office buildings were enforcing strict screenings for fever and many restaurants still only offer takeout. Children who would usually be snowed under with classes remained glued to screens, shopping, chatting and watching video clips.
South Korea on Monday reported only 74 more cases but there were still worries that infections might surge again from those returning from Europe or from local people attending church services. Some urged authorities to further postpone the new school year.
South Korean Prime Minister Chung Se-kyun called the country’s decline in cases a “hopeful sign” but said South Korea should “never loosen its guard.”
Ireland ordered all pubs and bars to close for two weeks — including on Tuesday, St. Patrick’s Day — and urged people not to hold house parties. A German medical adviser echoed that thought, telling people not to hold “corona parties” at home amid a shutdown of bars and clubs.
Turkey’s highest religious authorities suspended Friday prayers in tens of thousands of mosques across the country,
Italy on Sunday reported its biggest day-to-day increase in infections — 3,590 more cases — for a total of 24,747. With 1,809 virus-related deaths, Italy has more than a quarter of the global death toll.
In Spain, a cut in the frequency of commuter trains created in considerable crowds Monday morning in Atocha, one of Madrid’s main train stations.
Wearing blue latex gloves, cleaner Mari Carmen Ramirez said she, like many others, couldn’t afford to risk her salary of 950 euros ($1,042) per month.
“I fear the coronavirus, but I fear more not being able to pay the utility bills,” said the 55-year-old. “When this is all over, how are we going to eat?”
Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Ken Moritsugu in Beijing, Kim Tong-hyung and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, and Foster Klug and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.
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