The World Health Organization warned Monday there was now a “very real” threat that the new coronavirus outbreak will become a pandemic, but said the virus could still be controlled.
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After global COVID-19 infections passed the 100,000-mark, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters that “the threat of a pandemic has become very real.”
But he said “even if we call it a pandemic, still we can contain it and control it.”
“It would be the first pandemic in history that can be controlled,” he said. “We are not at the mercy of the virus.”
He pointed out that the situation varied widely in the 100-odd countries that have so far registered cases, with 93 percent of all cases being located in just four states.
“Whether it is pandemic or not, the rule of the game is the same: never give up,” he said.
He said 79 countries had registered fewer than 100 cases, and more than half of those had seen fewer than 10 infections.
At the same time, in China, where more than 80,000 cases have been recorded since the outbreak began there in December, the country appears to be “bringing the epidemic under control,” Tedros said.
“More than 70 percent have recovered and have been discharged,” he said.
Since the novel coronavirus or COVID-19 first emerged, 110,564 cases have been recorded across 100 countries, killing 3,862 people, according to an Agence France-Presse toll based on official sources.
Michael Ryan, who heads the WHO’s emergencies program, pointed out that unlike the flu, which spreads far easier, it is possible to slow down the spread of COVID-19.
He voiced hope that drastic measures taken by Italy could help rein in the virus, and would give less-affected countries more time to prepare for a wider spread.
But he acknowledged that the disease has not run its course.
“Right now I think we are still very much in the beginning or middle… of this fight,” he said, warning against complacency towards the virus.
The WHO last week estimated it kills 3.4 percent of all those infected.
For infected people aged over 80, the fatality rate appears to be higher than 20 percent, according to a report from an international expert mission to China last month.
Tedros slammed those who might suggest simply letting the virus run its course, pointing out that for the elderly and weak especially “it is very fatal.”
“If anything is going to hurt the world it is a moral decay, and not taking the deaths of the elderly or senior citizens” seriously, he said.
“Pandemic doesn’t mean that we say it is fine to live with it… we can contain it,” he said. “No white flag. We don’t give up.”
The WHO defines a pandemic as a situation in which “the whole world’s population would likely be exposed to this infection and potentially a proportion of them fall sick,” Ryan has said.
“Pandemic” is not an official WHO term, and it does not trigger any specific actions. WHO has already put out its highest level of alert—saying the world is at “high risk.”
Japan’s government Tuesday approved draft “state of emergency” measures that would allow authorities to keep people inside and commandeer buildings for hospitals, as Tokyo steps up its fight against coronavirus five months before the Olympics.
If approved by parliament, the draft bill would give Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the power to declare a state of emergency and impose drastic measures but Tokyo stressed that the situation had not yet reached that point.
“Currently we are not in a situation where we need to declare a state of emergency,” top government spokesman Yoshihide Suga told reporters on Tuesday.
The virus has infected more than 500 people across Japan and been linked to nine deaths. Its spread has cast doubt over whether the Olympics can open as scheduled on July 24, although authorities insist planning is continuing as normal.
Unlike neighboring South Korea, Japan has not undertaken widespread testing and the Abe government came under heavy fire for its handling of the Diamond Princess cruise ship that docked near Tokyo with nearly 700 people eventually becoming infected onboard.
Tokyo has said the coming few weeks will be crucial in slowing the spread of the coronavirus and Abe has urged schools to close for several weeks, in an announcement that caught the whole country off-guard.
The bill approved by the cabinet on Tuesday is a revision of a 2012 law aimed to slow the spread of new strains of flu and is expected to sail through parliament this week with opposition support.
Under the new law, once the prime minister declares a state of emergency in a specific part of the country, local governments can require residents to stay indoors, close schools and limit the use of facilities in which large numbers of people gather.
Land and buildings could be requisitioned as makeshift hospitals.
Abe has said that even though Japan is not yet seeing an epidemic over a wide area, “it is important to always prepare for the worst-case”.
Italians have been told to stay at home and avoid all non-essential travel as quarantine measures were extended to the whole country to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
The main points of a government decree signed on Monday night that brings the restrictions into effect until April 3 are:
* Don’t travel (unless it’s urgent). From Tuesday, the movements of Italy’s population of 60 million are severely limited. Travel is only allowed for “urgent, verifiable work situations and emergencies or health reasons.” People who have tested positive for COVID-19 must not leave their homes for any reason, while anyone with a fever or respiratory symptoms are strongly encouraged to stay at home and limit social contact, including with their doctor.
* Gatherings canceled. The latest decree prohibits “all forms of gatherings in public places or sites open to the public”—going further than the rules that went into force over the weekend in large parts of northern Italy. Sporting events of all levels and disciplines were cancelled, stopping play in the top-flight Serie A football league.
* Venues shuttered. To encourage people to stay in, bars and restaurants are only allowed to open between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. and only if it is possible to keep a distance of at least a meter between customers. All museums and cultural venues are closed, as well as nightclubs, cinemas, theaters, and casinos, which have been shut since the weekend. While supermarkets will remain open, large shopping centers and department stores must close on public holidays and the day before public holidays.
* Schools out. Schools and universities are closed, and all exams canceled. Religious institutions will stay open, as long as people can stay a meter from one another—but ceremonies such as marriages, baptisms, and funerals are banned.
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