Millions out of school as WHO calls for stronger virus response

535482_27297525ROME (AFP) – Almost 300 million students worldwide faced weeks at home with Italy and India the latest to shut schools over the deadly new coronavirus, as health officials on Thursday warned many countries were not doing enough to fight the outbreak.

As the number of cases rose above 97,000 worldwide with over 3,300 deaths in some 85 countries, the Paris marathon, Russia s main business forum and Italy s final match against England in the Six Nations Championship on March 14 were among the events cancelled or postponed.

The outbreak s rapid spread has prompted fears of a global economic downturn and rumbled global stock markets, with major European and US exchanges sinking again Thursday.

Most deaths and infections are still in China, where the virus first emerged late last year, prompting the country to quarantine entire cities, temporarily shut factories and close schools indefinitely.

But infections are now rising faster abroad than inside China, with South Korea, Iran and Italy emerging as hotspots.

Nations have implemented extraordinary measures, with UNESCO saying on Wednesday that school closures in more than a dozen countries have affected 290.5 million children.

But the World Health Organization warned Thursday that several countries were not showing “the level of political commitment” needed to “match the level of the threat we all face”.

“This is not a drill,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters. “This epidemic is a threat for every country, rich and poor.”

Britain and Switzerland reported their first deaths from the outbreak on Thursday, while Bosnia and South Africa confirmed their first cases and Algeria said 16 members of the same family had been infected.

A British United Nations employee was one of four people to test positive for the virus in Senegal, in the UN s first case worldwide.

France also reported a steep jump in cases, bringing its total to 423 with seven deaths, as President Emmanuel Macron warned the country was heading towards an “inevitable” epidemic.

Next week s session of the European parliament will also be moved from Strasbourg to Brussels due to “significantly higher health risks”.

In the US, the state of California declared an emergency following its first coronavirus fatality — raising the US death toll to 11 — as US lawmakers passed an emergency $8.3 billion spending bill to combat the outbreak.

India announced it was closing all primary schools in the capital New Delhi until the end of March to prevent the virus from spreading.

The orders came as an India-EU summit scheduled for March 13 was also postponed.

Italy has ordered schools and universities shut until March 15, and on Thursday reported a sharp rise in coronavirus deaths, bringing the total to 148.

Italy on Thursday unveiled a 7.5-billion-euro ($8.4-billion) economic rescue plan to deal with the impact of the virus.

New measures in the country — where 50,000 are under quarantine in several northern towns — include a month-long nationwide ban on fan attendance at sports events, and advising people to avoid greetings like kissing on the cheek or shaking hands.

South Korea — second only to China in terms of infections with cases jumping past 6,000 on Thursday — has postponed the start of the next term until March 23, while in Japan nearly all schools are closed until early April.

Schools have also shut in Iran, where 107 people have died from the disease.

The impact of the virus has convulsed across world economies.

The IMF said earlier it was making $50 billion in aid available for low-income and emerging-market countries to fight the epidemic, which it sees as a “serious threat” that it said would slow global growth to below last year s 2.9 percent.

“At a time of uncertainty… it is better to do more than to do not enough,” IMF chief Kristalina Georgieva said.

The airline industry could lose up to $113 billion (101 billion euros) in revenue this year due to the impact of the new coronavirus, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) warned, as governments issue travel restrictions or ban visitors from virus hotspots.

The forecast came as British carrier Flybe collapsed into bankruptcy and as more carriers lowered forecasts while they ground planes and cancel flights.

Israel this week barred entry to almost all non-resident arrivals from five European nations, prompting Lufthansa to cancel all its flights to the country on Thursday.

Beijing is now concerned about importing cases, prompting several cities to require people arriving from hard-hit countries to self-quarantine.

The number of confirmed virus cases in Greece surged after 21 travellers recently returned from a bus trip to Israel and Egypt tested positive for the virus.

Japan said it will quarantine all arrivals from China and South Korea for two weeks, while the United Arab Emirates warned its citizens to “avoid travelling”.

In the US thousands of people remained stranded on the Grand Princess cruise ship off the California coast as officials carried out tests on people on board.

A 71-year-old man who had been aboard the same ship during its previous voyage to Mexico died after contracting COVID-19.

The vessel belongs to Princess Cruises, the same company which operated a coronavirus-stricken ship held off Japan last month on which more than 700 people on board tested positive, with six dying from the disease.

Saudi Arabia has suspended the year-round Islamic “umrah” pilgrimage, an unprecedented move that raises fresh uncertainty over the annual hajj.

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