The coronavirus outbreak has been labelled a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO).
WHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the number of cases outside China had increased 13-fold in two weeks. He said he was “deeply concerned” by “alarming levels of inaction”.
A pandemic is a disease that is spreading in multiple countries around the world at the same time.
Hours later Italy said all shops except food shops and pharmacies would close.
Announcing the toughest lockdown seen yet in Europe, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said bars, hairdressers, restaurants and cafes that could not guarantee a metre’s distance between customers and non-essential company departments would also close.
The impact of the tightened restrictions – in force from Thursday until 25 March – on the rate of new coronavirus cases would take a couple of weeks to be seen, Mr Conte said.
What did the WHO say?
Dr Tedros said that calling the outbreak a pandemic did not mean the WHO was changing its advice about what countries should do.
He called on governments to change the course of the outbreak by taking “urgent and aggressive action”.
“Several countries have demonstrated that this virus can be suppressed and controlled,” he said.
“The challenge for many countries who are now dealing with large clusters or community transmission is not whether they can do the same – it’s whether they will.”
Governments had to “strike a fine balance between protecting health, minimising disruption and respecting human rights.”
“We’re in this together to do the right things with calm and protect the citizens of the world. It’s doable,” he said.
His appeal was followed by the several other countries announcing ever more stringent restrictions to try to prevent the virus taking a hold.
Denmark – which has 514 confirmed cases, up 10-fold since Monday, but no deaths so far – is to close all schools and universities from Friday and will send home all public sector employees who are not in critical roles in the coming days. The government also urged the cancellation of events with more than 100 people attending.
Meanwhile India has suspended most visas for foreigners until 15 April and Guatemala is banning European citizens from entering from Thursday.
Why is it being called a pandemic now?
The use of the p-word by the WHO to describe the global spread of this new coronavirus is not a huge surprise.
Up until now, it has talked merely of the “threat” or the “potential” for a pandemic. But with cases in more than 100 countries, and increasing numbers not linked to travel, the language has changed.
The WHO no longer ‘declares’ a pandemic the way it used to, so this is as official as it gets. Yet this doesn’t mean the pandemic cannot be controlled, it explains.
It’s a call to action and a plea for all countries not to give up, no matter how large the number of cases.
Practically, countries are being told to continue to do what they have been advised to do. That means some may have to step up their response.
But the WHO is not changing what it’s doing or the threat level of the virus.
What the use of the word “pandemic” highlights is the importance of countries around the world taking urgent action to respond to their own outbreaks – because now it’s everyone’s responsibility to turn the tide on the virus. (BBC)