WHO declares virus crisis a pandemic, urges world to fight

GENEVA (AP) — Expressing alarm both about mounting infections and inadequate government responses, the World Health Organization declared Wednesday that the global coronavirus crisis is now a pandemic but added that it’s not too late for countries to act.

By reversing course and using the charged word “pandemic” that it had previously shied away from, the U.N. health agency sought to shock lethargic countries into pulling out all the stops.

“We have called every day for countries to take urgent and aggressive action. We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO chief.

“All countries can still change the course of this pandemic. If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace and mobilize their people in the response,” he said. “We are deeply concerned by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction.”

The WHO said Iran and Italy are the new front lines of the battle against the virus that started in China.

“They’re suffering but I guarantee you other countries will be in that situation soon,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies chief.

He added that the agency thought long and hard about labeling the crisis a pandemic — meaning a new virus causing sustained outbreaks in multiple regions of the world.

The risk of employing the term, Ryan said, is “if people use it as an excuse to give up.”

But the likely benefits are “potentially of galvanizing the world to fight.”

Underscoring the mounting challenge: Italy’s cases soared again, to 12,462 infections and 827 deaths — both numbers second only to China.

Italy weighed imposing even tighter restrictions on daily life and announced billions in financial relief Wednesday to cushion economic shocks from the coronavirus, its latest efforts to adjust to the fast-evolving crisis that silenced the usually bustling heart of the Catholic faith, St. Peter’s Square.

In Iran, by far the hardest-hit country in the Middle East, the senior vice president and two other Cabinet ministers were reported to have been diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus. Iran reported another jump in deaths, by 62 to 354 — behind only China and Italy.

In Italy, Premier Giuseppe Conte said he would consider requests from Lombardy, Italy’s hardest-hit region, to toughen the already extraordinary anti-virus lockdown that was extended nationwide Tuesday. Lombardy wants to shut down nonessential businesses and reduce public transportation.

These measures would be on top of travel and social restrictions that imposed an eerie hush on cities and towns across the country. Police enforced rules that customers stay 1 meter (3 feet) apart and ensured that businesses closed by 6 p.m.

Milan shopkeeper Claudia Sabbatini said she favored the stricter measures. Rather than risk customers possibly infecting each other in her children’s clothing store, she closed it.

“I cannot have people standing at a distance. Children must try on the clothes. We have to know if they will fit,” she said.

But Conte said fighting the outbreak must not come at the expense of civil liberties. His caution suggested that Italy is unlikely to adopt the draconian quarantine measures that helped China push down new infections from thousands per day to a trickle now and allowed its manufacturers to restart production lines.

China’s new worry is that the coronavirus could re-enter from abroad. Beijing’s city government announced that all overseas visitors will be quarantined for 14 days. Of 24 new cases that China reported Wednesday, five arrived from Italy and one from the United States. China has had over 81,000 virus infections and over 3,000 deaths.

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