US President Donald Trump announced a 30-day ban on travellers from mainland Europe on Wednesday as the continent reeled from the rapid spread of a coronavirus pandemic that has emptied streets, shuttered shops and disrupted travel for millions.
The edict came amid signs of a widening European crisis, as Italy clocked more than 2,300 new cases in 24 hours and infections in Spain jumped by a quarter to more than 2,100.
Ireland, Albania, Belgium, Sweden and Bulgaria registered their first deaths on Wednesday, bringing Europe’s total to 930, from more than 22,000 infections.
“This is the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus in modern history,” Trump said in a primetime television address from the Oval Office — his latest attempt to counter criticism of his response so far.
The president said the ban would come into effect from “midnight Friday” but would not affect travellers from Britain, which recently left the European Union, to Trump’s great approval.
Trump briefly caused alarm as he announced that the “tremendous amount of trade and cargo” from Europe would also be banned, forcing officials to clarify that the measures would apply only to humans, not goods or cargo.
The number of coronavirus disease cases across the globe has risen to more than 124,000 with 4,500 deaths, after a jump in fatalities particularly in Iran and Italy, according to an AFP tally.
The World Health Organisation designated the outbreak as a pandemic on Wednesday, warning that the spread and severity of the illness was due to “alarming levels of inaction.”
Trump said European nations had seen more cases than the US because governments had failed to stop travel from China, where the Covid-19 epidemic began, while the US had enacted an early ban.
In reality, experts believe the American figures are artificially depressed by a catastrophic delay in rolling out testing in the initial weeks of the outbreak.
The United States is behind South Korea in the number of tests it has carried out, despite both countries registering their first case on the same day.
Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus tracker put the number of known US cases at around 1,300, with 36 dead.
The US got its biggest sign yet of the urgency of the crisis when the New York city government formed a containment zone around a suburb at the centre of an outbreak.
Wall Street stocks suffered another brutal rout on Wednesday, pushing the Dow into a “bear market,” or 20 per cent from its peak, after the latest series of event cancellations and company warnings rattled investors.
The pandemic claimed one of its highest profile casualties as Hollywood star Tom Hanks, 63, said he and his wife Rita Wilson had both tested positive after coming down with fever in Australia.
“To play things right, as is needed in the world right now, we were tested for the coronavirus, and were found to be positive,” he said in a statement posted to social media.
The majority of cases have been in China, where the outbreak emerged in December, but as the number of new infections has steadied, hotspots have emerged elsewhere — namely Italy, Iran and Spain.
“We have never before seen a pandemic sparked by a coronavirus,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, adding that its new designation would not change the organisation’s response to the outbreak.
“We’re deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction.”
Meanwhile, millions of people in Italy are grappling with a nationwide clampdown, with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announcing Italy would shut all stores except for pharmacies and food shops to curb the disease.
Factories and other big businesses can remain open as long as they adopt “appropriate security measures to prevent contagion,” Conte said.
His government vowed to spend up to 25 billion euros ($28 billion) to help contain fallout from the pandemic, including cash for hard-hit hotels and restaurants.
Even places with no significant outbreaks like Poland and Ukraine announced school closures and other restrictive measures. Austria said it would shut museums and halt train services to and from Italy.
In the Middle East, hard-hit Iran reported 63 new deaths, its highest single-day toll, which brought total fatalities to 354. It has yet to impose quarantines but has closed schools, universities and hotels and called on people not to travel.
WHO’s Tedros said the country, which has 9,000 cases, was “doing its best” to control the spread of the virus, but that it needed more supplies to cope.
Elsewhere in the region, Kuwait said it was suspending all commercial flights in and out of the country, after it and other Gulf nations had already adopted travel restrictions.
Offering a sliver of hope to the rest of the world, China again announced negligible new daily infections and only a relatively small number of deaths.
Some businesses in China’s Hubei province — where the virus was first detected in December — were told they could restart work, reducing fears of a prolonged disruption of supply chains.
But China remains the worst-affected country with more than 80,000 confirmed cases and over 3,000 deaths.
Although Panama confirmed its first death on Tuesday, Latin America — along with Africa and Oceania — has so far reported only small numbers of cases.
The pandemic continued to rip up the schedules of musicians, sports stars and cultural figures as governments around the world banned large gatherings.
England’s top-flight football league saw its first cancellation, with Wednesday’s match between Arsenal and Manchester City postponed, while E3 — the world’s premier video game trade show, due to be held in June in Los Angeles — was called off.
In the US, the NBA said it was suspending play starting Thursday after a Utah Jazz player preliminarily tested positive.