Global markets suffered record falls on Thursday as alarm over the coronavirus intensified, and governments from Ireland to Italy unveiled new measures to try to slow the spread of a disease that has infected more than 126,000 people worldwide.
Travellers in Europe rushed to board flights to the United States after President Donald Trump imposed sweeping restrictions on travel from the continent, a decision that angered leaders there.
In Europe, North America and Australia events from sports matches to weddings were cancelled or suspended, schools were closed and public gatherings restricted or banned, as normal life for millions began to be directly impacted.
Trump even suggested that the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo could be delayed by a year.
“Maybe they postpone it for a year… if that’s possible,” Trump told reporters. “I like that better than I like having empty stadiums all over the place.”
The White House announced it was stopping public tours, while Rome’s Catholic churches were ordered closed – a move thought to be unprecedented in modern times – and the city’s faithful given dispensation not to attend Sunday mass.
But in China, where the epidemic originated, officials said the disease had peaked and the global spread could be over by June if other nations applied similarly aggressive containment measures as Beijing’s communist government.
Fears of the impact of such restrictions on the movement of people and goods hit global stocks and oil prices hard.
Major European bourses fell by double-digit percentages for their biggest daily losses on record, led by a 17% slide in Italian stocks. Stimulus efforts from the European Central Bank did little to calm nerves.
On Wall Street stocks slumped around 10% in their worst day since the 1987 “Black Monday” crash.
Trump had restricted certain travel from Europe to the United States in a televised address on Wednesday, and on Thursday, weary and confused travellers rushed to airports to board the last flights back to the United States.
“It caused a mass panic,” said 20-year-old Anna Grace, a U.S. student at Suffolk University on her first trip to Europe, who rushed to Madrid’s Barajas airport at 5 a.m. to get home.
The outbreak has disrupted industry, travel, entertainment and sports worldwide, and prompted airlines to appeal for urgent aid from their governments.
But its progress in the epicentre of China’s Hubei province has slowed markedly amid strict curbs on movement, including the lockdown of its capital Wuhan.
Hubei logged just eight new infections on Wednesday, the first time in the outbreak it has recorded a daily tally in single figures. The rest of mainland China had seven new cases, six of them imported from abroad.
“The peak of the epidemic has passed for China,” said Mi Feng, a spokesman for the National Health Commission.
The Chinese government’s senior medical adviser, Zhong Nanshan, an epidemiologist renowned for helping combat the SARS outbreak in 2003, said the crisis could be over by mid-year if other countries followed China’s example.
The coronavirus has infected more than 126,000 people around the world, the vast majority in China, and killed 4,624, according to a Reuters tally.
Already annoyed at what it considered excessive travel restrictions by Washington early in the crisis, Beijing smarted again at the latest U.S. criticism of its handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien accused China on Wednesday of initially covering up the Hubei outbreak, saying that cost the world two months in response time.
In fact, retorted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, China’s efforts bought the world time.
Another Foreign Ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, wrote on his Twitter account that the U.S. military might have brought the coronavirus to Wuhan and the United States had to be transparent about its own cases.
In a wave of announcements, countries and U.S. states unveiled stricter new measures to slow the spread of new infections, some of them reminiscent of a war footing.
“It’s going to spread further,” British Prime Boris Johnson told a news conference. “I must level with you, level with the British public – more families, many more families, are going to lose loved ones before their time.”
French President Emmanuel Macron said in a television address on Thursday night that the country was facing its worst public health crisis in a century and announced measures including the closure of all schools, creches and universities from Monday.
California and New York announced sweeping bans on large gatherings, and more schools, museums and other institutions said they planned to close.
In Italy, where the death toll passed 1,000, the government imposed a blanket closure of restaurants, bars and almost all shops expect food stores and pharmacies.
Ireland will shut schools, universities and childcare facilities until March 29 and restrict mass gatherings.
Some matches in European soccer’s elite Champions League were postponed, while in U.S. sports the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League seasons were both suspended and Major League Baseball delayed its season start.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie were in self-isolation after she came down with flu-like symptoms and was tested for the new coronavirus.
Oscar-winning American actor Tom Hanks tested positive in Australia, where he is on a film shoot.
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