ROME (Reuters) – Deserted bars, reeling share dealers and rioting prisoners made clear on Monday 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%, and U.S. and Japanese indexes over 5% 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, where infections and deaths are still soaring even as they slow in China, the origin of the epidemic, much of the industrial north around Milan was coming to terms with a quarantine regime affecting 16 million people.
Deaths in Milan’s Lombardy region – where cinemas, theaters and museums are closed, sporting events suspended and restaurant hours restricted – jumped 25% in a day to 333, while the national death toll soared by 97 to 463, the highest in the world after China.
Well over 9,000 people have become infected in Italy in little over two weeks, out of a global total of more than 110,000. 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 medicine, noting that just four countries – China, South Korea, Italy and Iran – accounted for 93% of cases worldwide.
“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.”
In the United States, which has reported 566 cases including 22 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.
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 canceled, communities and cruise liners isolated, and concerts and trade fairs postponed. Even the Tokyo Summer Olympics are in doubt. But 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 neighboring Ireland, acting prime minister Leo Varadkar said a $3 billion euro ($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 the cancellation of all parades planned for the national St Patrick’s Day festival on March 17, including one in Dublin that draws more than 500,000 people from all over the world.
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 an emergency economic plan had been prepared.
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 $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 Hubei province, center of the outbreak, 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. With the rate of increase in new infections at its lowest level 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 six 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.”
Additional reporting by Leigh Thomas in Paris, Francesco Guarascio and Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels, Hyonhee Shin and Joyce Lee in Seoul, Babak Dehghanpisheh in Dubai, Crispian Balmer in Rome; Writing by Nick Macfie and Kevin Liffey; Editing by Andrew Heavens