A firefighter disinfects a traditional shopping center to help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus in northern Tehran, Iran, Friday, March, 6, 2020. A Health Ministry spokesman warned authorities could use unspecified “force” to halt travel between major cities. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Virus hits 100,000 cases as its economic impact snowballs

March 06, 2020 - 2:03 pm

BANGKOK (AP) — Crossing more borders, the new coronavirus hit a milestone Friday, infecting more than 100,000 people worldwide as it wove itself deeper into the daily lives of millions, infecting the powerful, the unprotected poor and vast masses in between.

The virus, which has killed more than 3,400 people, edged into more U.S. states, emerged in at least four new countries and even breached the halls of the Vatican. It forced mosques in Iran and beyond to halt weekly Muslim prayers, blocked pilgrims from Jesus' birthplace in Bethlehem and upended Japan's plans for the Olympic torch parade.

As financial markets dived again, repercussions from the virus also rattled livelihoods in the real economy.

“Who is going to feed their families?” asked Elias al-Arja, head of a hotel owners' union in Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where tourists have been banned and the storied Church of the Nativity was shuttered.

At the White House, President Donald Trump signed a $8.3 billion bill to fight the coronavirus and an official said Trump's administration was considering some type of support to hard-hit industries like travel and tourism.

In Geneva, the U.N. health agency said it had received applications for 40 possible virus tests, had 20 vaccine candidates in development and reported that numerous clinical trials of experimental drugs for the new coronavirus were under way.

“We're all in this together. We all have a role to play,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, chief of the World Health Organization, urging more global cooperation from the business world and solidarity with the poorest.

Yet even as COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, reached 90 countries, more than half of those who contracted the virus have now recovered. And it's retreating in China, where it first emerged, and nearby South Korea.

Questions swirled around whether Iran could control its outbreak, as the number of reported infections jumped beyond 4,700 on Friday, with 124 deaths. Iran set up checkpoints to limit travel, urging people to stop using paper money and had firefighters spray disinfectant on an 18-kilometer (11-mile) stretch of Tehran's most famous avenue.

“It would be great if they did it every day,” grocery store owner Reza Razaienejad said after the spraying. “It should not be just a one-time thing.”

The 100,000 figure of global infections is largely symbolic, but dwarfs other major outbreaks in recent decades, such as SARS, MERS and Ebola. The virus is still much less widespread than annual flu epidemics, which result in up to 5 million annual severe cases around the world and from 290,000 to 650,000 deaths annually, according to WHO.

But there was no denying that the epidemic's economic impact was snowballing. World stocks and the price of oil dropped sharply again Friday.

A sharp drop in travel and a broader economic downturn linked to the outbreak threatened to hit already-struggling communities for months. In response to plummeting demand, German airline Lufthansa announced it would reduce its capacity in coming weeks by as much as 50% of pre-coronavirus outbreak levels.

The head of the U.N.’s food agency, the World Food Program, warned of the potential for “absolute devastation” as the outbreak’s effects ripple through Africa and the Middle East. India scrambled to stave off an epidemic that could overwhelm its under-funded, under-staffed health care system, which does not have nearly enough labs or hospitals for its 1.3 billion people.

“We’re seeing more countries affected with lower incomes, with weaker health systems and that's more concerning,” WHO chief Ghebreyesus said.

White collar workers can log onto laptops from home, but health care workers, waiters, delivery workers, cashiers, drivers, museum attendants and others don't have that option. And sick leave policies or health insurance coverage are inconsistent around the world, putting millions of workers' earnings at risk. In the U.S. the AFL-CIO labor federation urged the government to issue emergency regulations outlining employers' responsibilities to protect workers from infectious diseases.

The fear and the crackdowns that swept through China are now shifting westward, as workers in Europe and the U.S. stay home, authorities vigorously sanitize public places and consumers flock to stores for household staples.

Nation after nation put some travel restrictions into place, blocking visitors from hard-hit areas like China, South Korea, Italy and Iran. And the United Nations’ top climate change official said her agency won’t hold any physical meetings at its headquarters in Germany or elsewhere until the end of April.

“The Western world is now following some of China’s playbook,” said Chris Beauchamp, a market analyst at the financial firm IG.

Off California's coast, the spectacle of a Grand Princess cruise ship ordered to stay at sea over virus fears replicated ones weeks ago on the other side of the globe in which hundreds of people on the Diamond Princess cruise ship were infected even during a quarantine.

Thailand on Friday blocked a separate cruise ship from docking, worried because it carried dozens of passengers from Italy, which with 148 virus deaths is the center of Europe's epidemic.

In the U.S. the number of cases surpassed 230, scattered across 18 states. The University of Washington announced Friday it would stop holding holding classes at its three Seattle-area campuses and teach students online, a decision affecting some 57,000 students. The state has at least 70 confirmed COVID-19 cases, most in the Seattle area.

COVID-19 is a flu-like illness that for most people causes mild or moderate symptoms such as fever and cough but can hit elderly or sick people much harder. French President Emmanuel Macron visited a retirement home in Paris on Friday to reassure the elderly and health care workers about France’s readiness to combat the virus, which has infected nearly 600 of its citizens.

China reported 143 new cases Friday and South Korea had 505 more cases, down from earlier daily tallies. But the numbers kept growing in Europe and the death toll in hard hit Italy reached 197. Serbia threatened to deploy the army to keep the virus at bay, and Hungary used virus fears to tighten its doors against migrants.

The Netherlands reported its first virus death Friday while Serbia, Slovakia, Peru and Cameroon announced their first infections. Even Vatican City was hit, with the tiny city-state confirming its first case Friday. The Vatican has insisted that 83-year-old Pope Francis, who has been sick, only has a cold.

WHO officials warned against having “false hopes” that the virus could fade away when warmer summer temperatures come to northern countries.

"Every day we slow down the epidemic is another day governments can prepare their health workers to detect, test, treat and care for patients,” the WHO chief told reporters. “Every day we slow down the epidemic is another day closer to having vaccines and therapeutics, which can, in turn, prevent infections and save lives.”

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Charlton reported from Paris. Contributing to this report were Jamey Keaten in Geneva; Kim Tong-Hyung and Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea; Aya Batrawy and Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Nicole Winfield in Rome; Colleen Barry in Milan, Italy; Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade; Sylvie Corbet in Paris; Gene Johnson in Seattle; Olga Rodriguez in San Francisco; and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Bethlehem, West Bank.

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Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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