SEOUL/SHANGHAI -- International concern about the spread of coronavirus outside China grew on Sunday with sharp rises in infections in three countries - South Korea, Italy and Iran.
South Korea went on high alert after the number of infections surged over 600 with six deaths. Italy saw a rise to 132 cases and imposed stringent curbs in parts of the country to try to stop the spread. Iran has reported 43 cases, with eight deaths.
In China, which has seen the vast majority of cases, authorities reported 648 new infections - higher than a day earlier - but only 18 were outside of Hubei province, the lowest number outside the epicenter since authorities began publishing data a month ago and locked down large parts of the country.
President Xi Jinping said that while measures to deal with the virus had been effective, the battle to contain it was still at a crucial stage. State run television urged people to avoid complacency, drawing attention to people gathering in public areas and tourist spots without wearing masks.
The virus has killed 2,442 people in China, which has reported 76,936 cases, and has slammed the brakes on the world’s second largest economy. It has spread to some 26 other countries and territories, with a death toll of around two dozen, according to a Reuters tally.
It has been fatal in 2% of reported cases, with the elderly and ill the most vulnerable, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which said on Saturday it was worried by the detection of infections without a clear link to China.
South Korean alert
South Korea’s president said the government had raised the disease alert to the highest level, allowing authorities to send extra resources to Daegu city and Cheongdo county, which were designated “special care zones” on Friday.
Health officials reported 169 new infections, bringing the total to 602, having doubled from Friday to Saturday.
More than half the new cases are linked to a church in the southeastern city of Daegu after a 61-year-old woman known as “Patient 31” who attended services there tested positive for the virus last week. The woman had no recent record of overseas travel.
The raised alert level also enables the government to forcibly prevent public activities and order the temporary closure of schools, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency said, although the government gave no immediate details on what steps could be taken.
Concern about the reach and rapid spread of the coronavirus also grew in Europe and the Middle East.
In Italy, schools and universities were closed and some soccer matches postponed in the affected northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto, the country’s industrial heartland.
Almost a dozen towns in Lombardy and Veneto with a combined population of some 50,000 have effectively been placed under quarantine, with locals urged to stay home and special permission needed to enter or leave the designated areas.
Iran reported a total of 43 infections, with eight deaths - all since Tuesday.
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq and Turkey imposed travel and immigration restrictions on Iran, while Oman on Sunday urged its citizens to steer clear of countries with high infection rates and said arrivals from those nations would be quarantined.
The WHO says the virus is severe or critical in only a fifth of infected patients, and mild in the rest, but the potential economic impact of the disease was prominent at a meeting of G20 finance ministers in Riyadh.
The International Monetary Fund chief said China’s 2020 growth would likely be lower at 5.6%, down 0.4 percentage points from its January outlook, with 0.1 percentage points shaved from global growth.
Pressure on Japan
In Japan, where the government is facing growing questions about whether it is doing enough to counter the virus, authorities had confirmed 773 cases by early Sunday evening, most of them from a cruise ship quarantined near Tokyo.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe instructed government agencies to urgently prepare medical provisions and draft a comprehensive plan to curb the spread.
A third passenger from the virus-infected Diamond Princess cruise ship, a Japanese man in his 80s, died on Sunday, authorities said.
In South Korea, Catholic churches in Daegu and Gwangju have suspended mass and other gatherings, while churches elsewhere saw declines in attendance on Sunday, especially among the elderly.
“If the situation gets worse, I think we’ll need to take more measures. Currently, we’re limiting personal gatherings within the church except for Mass,” said Song Gi-young, 53, wearing a face mask at church.
Heo Young-moo, 88, expressed frustration.
“Devotees shouldn’t go to any risky places ... Hasn’t it become so widespread because those people didn’t get checked?”,” he said.
In China, the cities of Beijing, Zhejiang, Sichuan had no new infections on Feb. 22 for the first time since the outbreak was detected. There were signs of street life in Shanghai, with some cafes serving take-out food and families wearing masks walking their dogs.
Analysts have been closely watching out for any signs of a secondary wave of infections as transport restrictions are eased and many migrant workers return to factories and offices. Business activity is only gradually returning to normal after widespread disruption.