Coronavirus cases pass 100,000 globally

Lily Kuo in Hong Kong and Justin McCurry in Tokyo

[ WHO calls on countries to make containing spread their highest priority, as Trump signs emergency spending bill ]
By Sam Jones from Madrid and Patrick Wintour
The total number of coronavirus cases confirmed around the world passed 100,000 on Friday as Iran reported a sharp rise in cases and threatened to use force to stop people travelling between cities.
Tehran’s announcement came as the World Health Organization called on countries to make “containment their highest priority” and Donald Trump signed a $8.3bn emergency spending bill to deal with the virus, despite insisting that it “will go away”.
In Italy, Europe’s worst-affected country, the death toll rose by 46 to 197, and the number of confirmed cases increased by 778 to 4,636.
Speaking at a televised press conference on Friday, a spokesman for Iran’s health ministry said the authorities had confirmed 4,747 cases of the virus, a rise of 1,234 on the day before. While he did not elaborate on the threat to use force, the spokesman acknowledged that the virus was present in all of Iran’s 31 provinces.
The threat may be aimed at stopping people from using closed schools and universities as an excuse to go to the Caspian Sea and other holiday spots in the run-up to the Persian new year, which falls on 21 March.
Semi-official news agencies in Iran posted images of long lines of traffic of people trying to reach the coast from Tehran on Friday despite authorities earlier telling people to remain in their cities.
Checkpoints on roads in Mazandaran and Gilan provinces were being operated by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in perhaps the most visible intervention by the state yet. There also appeared to be checks for those entering or leaving the holy city of Qom.
Friday prayers and football matches have already been cancelled but public trust in the authorities’ capacity to deal with the virus had been undermined by the government’s sluggish and complacent initial response to the outbreak, and by the state’s secrecy over the killing of hundreds of street protesters in November.
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Stung by criticism of its handling of the outbreak, Tehran has pointed to WHO assessments that have not challenged the government figures. Health officials said the new figures may reflect the availability of more accurate testing kits.
In two further signs of rising concern about the situation in Iran, Christoph Hamelmann, the WHO country director, told senior overseas diplomats in Tehran that funding was urgently needed for a “rapid upscaling” of laboratory and clinical components, and Saudi Arabia called on citizens to declare visits to Iran in the past 14 days. Members of the kingdom’s Shia minority tend to keep their visits to Iran secret because of the bitter rivalry between the two countries.
But at a briefing on Friday, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director general, praised Iran for “switching on” to the outbreak and for taking an “all-of-government approach”.
Tedros said the epidemic was continuing to spread, adding: “We are continuing to recommend that all countries make containment their highest priority.”
Elsewhere in the Middle East, 12 new cases were reported among workers on a cruise ship in Egypt. A tourist who travelled on the same ship sailing between Luxor and Aswan tested positive for the virus on her return to Taiwan a week ago.
Across Europe there were significant rises in death tolls and infections. In France, where cases rose by 190 to 613, and deaths by two to nine, President Emmanuel Macron urged people to limit visits to elderly people, even though this could prove “heartbreaking” at times. The UK, meanwhile, reported what is believed to be its second death, and the Netherlands its first.
Elsewhere, the first confirmed cases were reported in Costa Rica, Colombia, Cameroon, Togo, Serbia, Bhutan and Vatican City.
As the outbreak continued to spread in the US, the Trump administration was forced on to the defensive following criticism of its approach to the virus. Fifteen people have died from the coronavirus there and more than 200 infections have been confirmed across at least 18 states.
Trump called for calm as he signed an $8.3bn emergency spending bill to deal with the virus. “It will go away,” he said. “We have very low numbers [of confirmed cases] compared to many countries throughout the world, our numbers are lower than almost anyone … In terms of cases, it’s very, very few because we have been very strong at the borders.”
The president also said he believed the financial markets would “really bounce back” despite concerns that the virus was spreading beyond the control of governments around the world.
Passengers on a large cruise ship off the California coast were instructed to stay in their cabins on Friday as they awaited test results that could determine whether the virus was circulating among the more than 3,500 people aboard.
A military helicopter crew lowered test kits onto the Grand Princess by rope and later retrieved them for analysis at a lab as the vessel lay at sea off San Francisco, under orders to keep its distance from shore.
Authorities undertook the testing after a passenger on a previous voyage of the ship died of the coronavirus and at least four others became infected.
“The ship will not come on shore until we appropriately assess the passengers,” the Califorinia governor, Gavin Newsom, said.
In Asia, a diplomatic row erupted between Japan and South Korea after Tokyo said it would quarantine all passengers arriving from the country, which has the highest number of cases outside China.
From Saturday, anyone arriving in Japan from South Korea will be placed in a two-week quarantine at government-designated sites, the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, said on Thursday.
Seoul described the move as “unreasonable, excessive and extremely regrettable”, accusing Japan of failing to address its own outbreak properly, and threatening retaliatory measures.
The International Olympic Committee and Tokyo 2020 organisers have insisted the Games will open as planned on 24 July, but speculation is growing that they will have to be cancelled.
Meanwhile, schools in parts of China were set to reopen as the central province of Hubei – excluding the provincial capital Wuhan – reported no new cases of the coronavirus over the past 24 hours for the first time since the outbreak began last year.
While Hubei reported no new cases for a full day, Wuhan, the centre of the epidemic, said it had confirmed 126 new cases of the virus on Thursday.
( Additional reporting by Lily Kuo in Hong Kong and Justin McCurry in Tokyo; Source: The Guardian)
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