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Coronavirus: WHO calls COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic as Italy orders most stores to close

Italy ordered the closure of all shops Thursday, except for pharmacies and those selling food, to curb the spread of coronavirus. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization is characterizing the outbreak as a pandemic.

Italy on front line, WHO cautions other countries 'will be in that situation soon'

Despite saying the coronavirus outbreak is now a pandemic, the World Health Organization says that does not change what countries should do. 2:47

The latest:

  • WHO describes outbreak as a pandemic as case numbers top 118,000 in 114 countries.
  • U.S. is suspending all travel from Europe for the next 30 days, but not the U.K.
  • Italy reports more than 12,000 cases of COVID-19, with more than 800 deaths.
  • Trudeau announces $1-billion fund for COVID-19 response.
  • Guatemala bars Europeans, starting Thursday.
  • G7 meetings in Pittsburgh will be held by video conference.
  • Read more about how Canadians are being urged to help 'flatten the curve' of COVID-19.
  • Watch tonight, on a special edition of The National: What you need to know about the coronavirus pandemic. How people around the world and here at home are bracing, and our panel of doctors answers your questions. 

Italy says all stores except pharmacies and food markets will be closed starting Thursday in response to the country's growing coronavirus outbreak.

The measure is in response to a spike in the number of virus-related deaths in Italy, now up to 827 — a jump of more than 30 per cent in a single day. More than 12,400 people across the country have contracted COVID-19.

The news follows an announcement Wednesday from the World Health Organization, characterizing the outbreak as a pandemic, as the number of people infected rose to more than 118,000 in 114 countries, with 4,291 deaths.

"Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. "It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death."

"This is not just a public-health crisis," he said, but added that countries should "double down and we should be more aggressive" and focus on containment, given the increasing case numbers. He encouraged countries to find and test every case, prepare hospitals, train health workers and co-operate.

"This is everybody's business," he said, while pointing out that 81 countries have not reported any cases and 57 countries have reported 10 cases or fewer.

WATCH | Doctor says mild cases help spread the virus:

'Everybody get ready,' Dr. Peter Lin says of the need to prepare for a strain on the health-care system.   4:16

The WHO labelled the outbreak that first emerged in China as a global health emergency of international concern in late January. Although China has seen the bulk of the world's cases, the spread of COVID-19 has created new hotspots in places like Italy and Iran.

Tedros said 90 per cent of the cases are in just four countries and two of them, China and South Korea, are seeing "significantly declining epidemics."

Dr. Mike Ryan, director of WHO's emergencies program, said Iran and Italy are on the front line of the outbreak now — but he cautioned that other countries will soon be dealing with larger case numbers.

"They're suffering, but I guarantee you other countries will be in that situation soon," Ryan said.

"There have to be very strong efforts made to suppress infection," Ryan said, noting that it would — at a minimum — slow the spread and ease the burden on health systems.

Expanding clusters of the new coronavirus continued to upended daily life, in places like an increasingly locked-down Italy.

"Right now, the epicentre — the new China — is Europe," said Robert Redfield, the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Rome's usual boisterous hum was reduced to a whisper as Italy's 62 million people were told to mostly stay home. Though shops, cafes and restaurants remained open, police around the country were enforcing rules that customers stay one metre apart and certain businesses shutter by 6 p.m.

Financial relief 

The health crisis was dealing a serious blow to Italy's economy — the third-largest of the 19 countries using the euro — and threatened instability worldwide.

Markets across Asia dropped Wednesday despite Wall Street's gains a day earlier. The TSX, Dow Jones, S&P 500 and Nasdaq all closed between three and five per cent lower.

Investors seemed encouraged by promises by U.S. President Donald Trump of a relief package to cushion economic pain from the outbreak. Governments around Asia and elsewhere have also announced billions of dollars in stimulus funds, including packages revealed in Japan on Tuesday and Australia on Wednesday.

The Italian government is promising to inject 10 billion euros ($15.5 billion Cdn) into the economy and allow a moratorium on debt payments such as mortgages during the outbreak. Britain's Treasury chief has announced a 30 billion-pound ($53-billion Cdn) package of measures designed to help the economy as it grapples with the outbreak.

For most, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for a few, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illnesses, including pneumonia.

The virus has disrupted travel around the globe, while schools are closed and manufacturing is halted in some places. Here's a look at what's happening in Canada, the U.S. and some of the hard-hit regions around the world.

Here's what's happening in Canada

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said while Canada hasn't seen a "drastic spike" in coronavirus cases, the government needs to ensure it's ready for "all scenarios."

On Wednesday, he announced a $1-billion fund to help tackle COVID-19 and deal with the economic impact of the virus.

The fund — which includes money toward public education campaigns and research — will also be used to buy supplies for health-care workers.

According to a statement, $500 million will go to provinces and territories for "critical health-care system needs and to support mitigation efforts as needed."

Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam said federal and provincial health authorities are preparing for a 'range of scenarios,' but that Canadians can take steps to slow the spread of COVID-19. 2:08

"This could include help to support with access to testing, acquisition of equipment, and to enhance surveillance and monitoring." 

Ottawa is also providing support to workers who have been put under quarantine or told to self-isolate by waiving the one-week waiting period for employment insurance.

"No one should have to worry about their job if they have to be quarantined," he said, and no employer should feel they have to lay off a worker because of the virus.

"We need to make sure that everyone is given the tools they need," Trudeau said, later adding that Ottawa is ready to do more as needed.

WATCH | People in Italy complying with one-metre distance policy:

'People are really kicking into gear' and respecting strict Italian regulations, says correspondent Megan Williams 2:24

The Public Agency of Canada, which has been continually assessing the risk from the outbreak, says that the risk to the general population in Canada is low, but notes "this could change rapidly."

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, has noted that some people face an increased risk.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Canada had 118 confirmed or presumptive COVID-19 cases, including:

Alberta reported five news cases, bringing the total number in the province to 19. All of those cases are travel related, health officials said Wednesday.

Ontario reported five of its cases were resolved, which means they are "no longer infectious based on two consecutive negative tests." B.C. said four of its cases are resolved.

Health officials in Canada have reported one death linked to COVID-19 — a man in his 80s who lived at a long-term care facility in B.C.

In Ontario, Laurentian University in Sudbury is moving all its classes online, starting Thursday, in response to the city's first case, a Sudbury man who tested positive for COVID-19 after attending a mining conference in Toronto.

The city of Ottawa is also reporting its first case, a man in his 40s who is thought to have contracted the virus while travelling in Austria. Hamilton's first case is a radiation oncologist who recently returned from Hawaii.

New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs is calling for the first ministers meeting scheduled for Friday in Ottawa to be held by teleconference.

Here's what's happening in the U.S.

In the U.S., President Donald Trump said Wednesday he is suspending all travel from Europe for 30 days beginning Friday as he seeks to combat the viral pandemic.

Trump made the announcement in an Oval Office address to the nation, blaming the European Union for not acting quickly enough to address the coronavirus and saying U.S. clusters were "seeded" by European travellers.

The caseload in the U.S. has passed 1,000, and outbreaks on both sides of the country. Dozens of cases were being tied to a conference in Boston, and leaders in multiple states were announcing curbs on large events.

Washington state has reported over a quarter of the coronavirus cases and nearly all the 28 deaths. Gov. Jay inslee on Wednesday prohibited gatherings of over 250 people and said he may soon close schools. A Seattle-area nursing home is at the centre of the outbreak, and officials say the virus had spread to at least 10 other long-term care facilities.

Colleges around the country emptied their classrooms as they moved to online instruction and uncertainty surrounded the upcoming opening of the Major League Baseball season and college basketball's championships. Even the famed buffets of Las Vegas were affected, with some of the Strip's biggest being closed in a precautionary measure.

A health-care worker tests people Wednesday at a drive-thru testing station run by the Colorado health department in Denver for people who suspect they have novel coronavirus. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

NCAA (U.S. college basketball) tournament games will not be open to the general public for the time being because of concerns about the spread of coronavirus.

San Francisco's mayor prohibited for two weeks all gatherings of 1,000 or more people, meaning fans will not be attending Thursday's Golden State Warriors home game against the Brooklyn Nets in the NBA.

New York's governor said National Guard troops would scrub public places and deliver food to a suburb where infections have spiked.

In California, thousands of restless passengers remained stuck aboard a cruise ship, waiting for their turn to disembark to begin quarantines.

The G7 foreign ministers meeting scheduled for March 24-25 in Pittsburgh will be held by video teleconference "out of an abundance of caution," the U.S. Department of State office said Wednesday.

Here's what's happening in Italy and Europe

Italy's lockdown measures to try to beat the coronavirus are reducing its economic output by around 10 per cent to 15 per cent, Lorenzo Codogno, a former Italian Treasury chief economist, said on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte unexpectedly expanded the so-called red zone to the entire country on Monday night, introducing the most severe controls on a Western nation.

Pope Francis held his weekly general audience in his private library as the Vatican implemented Italy's drastic coronavirus lockdown measures, barred the general public from St. Peter's Square and took precautions to limit the spread of infections in the tiny city-state.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau breaks down the $1-billion fund to help Canadians cope with the spread of COVID-19. 2:41

The Vatican representative to East Timor said a visit by Pope Francis has been cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak. Monsignor Marco Sprizzi of the Apostolic Nunciature told reporters in Dili that Francis had previously indicated his willingness to visit East Timor later this year. But Sprizzi cited concerns about large crowds, saying "because he did not want his people affected by the coronavirus, he cancelled his visit."

Meanwhile, Italian soccer club Juventus says defender Daniele Rugani has tested positive for COVID-19.

Italy isn't the only country in Europe dealing with a growing number of cases of COVID-19.

  • Spain: Spain's ministry of health on Wednesday reported more than 2,100 cases with 47 deaths. Roughly half the cases are in the Madrid region.
  • Germany:  Germany on Wednesday confirmed its third death related to the coronavirus as another patient in the badly affected district of Heinsberg in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia died. Germany has reported a total of 1,296 cases.
  • France: France's health ministry was reporting 1,784 cases as of Tuesday, with more than 30 deaths.
  • United Kingdom: The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus across the U.K. has risen to 456, up 
    from 373 a day earlier, the health ministry said on Wednesday. The number of patients who died after testing positive for the virus remained unchanged at six.

Poland is closing all schools, universities, cinemas, theatres and museums for two weeks from Thursday to curtail the spread of the coronavirus, government representatives said on Wednesday. Poland has confirmed 26 cases of coronavirus, but looking at how fast the virus spreads in some other European countries, the government decided to take the preventive action, they said.

A man in protective gear gives a fact sheet of the coronavirus to a driver arriving from Italy at a border crossing near Matrei am Brenner, Austria, on Wednesday. Austria is turning away people arriving from Italy, except those with a doctor's certificate. Freight is still being allowed in and any Austrians arriving will also be admitted but will need to submit to quarantine. (Jan Hetfleisch/Getty Images)

Swiss customs authorities have shut down nine border crossings with Italy, the epicentre of Europe's coronavirus outbreak, to channel border traffic through seven other sites.

The move announced Wednesday follows a decision by Italian authorities to continue to allow cross-border traffic with Switzerland despite adopting strong quarantine measures across Italy. Neighbours Austria and Slovenia have barred travellers from Italy without a medical certificate.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at a rare, hastily convened news conference Wednesday in Berlin that it's important for European leaders to discuss "what are good and effective measures and what aren't." She said "we in Germany, in any case, are of the opinion that border closures are not an appropriate response to the challenge."

Here's what's happening in Iran and the Middle East

Iran said Wednesday that the novel coronavirus killed 63 more people, raising the death toll to 354 amid over 9,000 cases in the Islamic Republic.

Across the Mideast, most of the nearly 10,000 people who have contracted the virus and the COVID-19 illness it causes are in hard-hit Iran. Outside the Islamic Republic, only Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon have recorded deaths from the virus in the Mideast.

A civil defence worker wearing a protective suit sprays disinfectant in Baghdad's main market as a precaution against the novel coronavirus on Tuesday. (Hadi Mizban/The Associated Press)

Israel has 82 confirmed coronavirus cases. Earlier in the week, the government announced that everyone arriving in Israel will be required to self-quarantine for 14 days.

In Bahrain, authorities say the number of confirmed cases on Wednesday spiked by nearly 70 per cent to 189. The new cases were all on a returning flight of Bahraini evacuees from Iran.

Officials found 77 on board tested positive for the novel coronavirus, compared to the 112 already reported in the island country off the coast of Saudi Arabia.

Here's what's happening in China

In China, officials said they'd counted only 24 new cases on Wednesday. In a reversal of positions, China is seeing new cases brought in from overseas.

WATCH | China's coronavirus epicentre loosens some quarantine restrictions:

Drop in new cases of COVID-19 permits work to resume for some in Wuhan. 0:25

In Beijing, the capital, all the new cases of COVID-19 reported on Wednesday came from outside the country, five from Italy and one from the United States. "The epidemic situation is at a low level and the prevention and control are continuously going well," said Mi Feng, spokesperson for the National Health Commission.

Beijing's city government said all passengers arriving in the city from overseas, regardless of their points of departure, are now be required to undergo a 14-day quarantine.

Here's what's happening in South Korea and Japan

The other major outbreak site in Asia, South Korea, continued to report improving numbers, too, with 242 new cases announced Wednesday. Still, a cluster of infections connected to a call centre in one of the busiest areas of that country's capital was raising alarms.

More than half of South Korea's 51 million people live in the Seoul metropolitan area.

So far, 93 people have tested positive among the call centre's employees and their families, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon said Wednesday in a briefing broadcast over YouTube. The number could grow as tests are being done on more than 550 co-workers who worked on other floors of the Korea Building in Seoul's Guro district.

Health workers in white protective suits scrambled to sanitize the nearby Sindorim subway station, which is used by more than 404,000 commuters per day, according to Seoul Metro.

Disinfection workers wearing protective gear spray antiseptic solution against the coronavirus in a subway at Seoul metro railway base on Wednesday. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

While most of the infected workers live in Seoul, some of them commute from nearby cities such as Incheon and Bucheon, raising concern about a broader spread through public transit.

Call centre workers may be vulnerable because they work long hours in crowded and confined spaces, said Yoon Tae-ho, an official from South Korea's health ministry.

Jung Eun-kyeong, director of South Korea's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said it would be difficult to track infections if they spread to buses and subways. She said it's "most critical" that public transit operators vigorously sanitize handles, bars and anything passengers frequently touch with the threat of local transmissions growing.

Park said Seoul is investigating the working conditions of more than 400 call centres in the city and will push employers to allow more employees to work from home. The mayor said authorities were responding actively to prevent the cluster from intensifying like South Korea's earlier clusters around the southeastern city of Daegu.

Here's a look at what's happening in some other areas as COVID-19 spreads

  • India ramped up travel restrictions and closed a border with neighbouring Myanmar to counter the outbreak, as countries across South Asia reported a rise in cases on Wednesday. India said that starting on Friday, it will suspend all tourist visas to the country until April 15. Total cases in the country rose to 68 on Wednesday.
  • In Afghanistan, the number of confirmed cases rose to seven from four, the country's health ministry said.
  • Democratic Republic of Congo confirmed its first case of coronavirus on Tuesday, bringing the number of countries in sub-Saharan Africa hit by the epidemic to seven.
  • Indonesia says a foreigner has become its first fatality from COVID-19. Achmad Yurianto, the government spokesperson on efforts to contain the coronavirus, said Wednesday the 53-year-old woman had diabetes and lung disease and had contracted the virus abroad.
  • Honduras has confirmed its first two cases of the virus — a woman who travelled from Spain and a woman who travelled from Switzerland.
  • Guatemala's health minister said the country will ban the entry of citizens of European countries, Iran, China and South Korea, starting Thursday, in an attempt to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The Central American country has yet to confirm any cases of COVID-19.

With files from CBC News, Reuters and The Canadian Press

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