Virus upends life in Italy as China vows to defeat epidemic

Published 10:49 am Tuesday, March 10, 2020

BEIJING (AP) — Starkly illustrating the global east-to-west spread of the new coronavirus, Italy began an extraordinary, sweeping lockdown Tuesday while in China, the diminishing threat prompted the president to visit the epicenter and declare: “We will certainly defeat this epidemic.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s trip to the central city of Wuhan — his first since the start of the outbreak — was the latest sign that China is edging back toward normal after weeks of extreme quarantine measures. China reported just 19 new infections Tuesday, down from thousands each day last month.

“Things are slowly returning to normal,” said Yang Tianxiao, a finance worker in Beijing, where the city government is gradually easing restrictions that kept many office workers at home.

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Yet in Italy, life was upended as travel restrictions previously limited to the country’s north were extended everywhere. Teams of Italian police patrolled cafes to make sure owners were keeping customers 1 meter (3 feet) apart. The streets of the Italian capital were as quiet as they are during the annual mid-August vacation shutdown.

“It’s bad. People are terrorized,” said Massimo Leonardo, who runs a market stall. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Internationally, Italy was increasingly becoming sealed off. Malta and Spain announced a ban on air traffic from Italy. Malta turned away another cruise ship and British Airways canceled flights to the whole country. Austria barred travelers from crossing the border without a medical certificate. Britain, Ireland, Hong Kong and Germany strengthened travel advisories or flat-out urged their citizens to leave. Even the Vatican erected a new barricade at the edge of St. Peter’s Square.

Italy now has more coronavirus cases than anywhere but China, registering 9,172 infections with 463 deaths. Officials braced for more.

”Get out of northern Italy if you’re there. We don’t know how long the Italian authorities will keep the window open,” said Erik Broegger Rasmussen, head of consular services for Denmark’s foreign ministry.

Outbreaks flared elsewhere, too, with virus-related disruptions increasingly becoming the new normal in growing swaths of the globe.

France’s government advised voters to bring their own pens to cast ballots in local elections Sunday, so they won’t have to share. Morocco reported its first death of a virus-infected person — only the second confirmed fatality in Africa. In Spain and France, soccer’s biggest stars prepared to play in empty stadiums. Bans on public gatherings silenced entertainers. Sony Pictures delayed the launch of “Peter Rabbit 2” to August.

The virus reached into the corridors of power. In the United States, several senior politicians were self-quarantined. The chief commander of Poland’s armed forces, Gen. Jaroslaw Mika, was among those newly infected.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illnesses, including pneumonia. More than 115,800 people have been infected worldwide and over 4,000 have died.

The World Health Organization says people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while severe cases may last three to six weeks. In mainland China, where the outbreak emerged in December, almost three-fourths of its more than 80,000 patients have recovered.

The virus has shaken global markets, with stocks on Monday taking their worst one-day beating on Wall Street since 2008 and oil prices suffering their most brutal losses since the start of the 1991 Gulf War.

On Tuesday, U.S. stocks, oil and other financial markets around the world clawed back some ground after their historic plunge the previous day on hopes that the U.S. and other governments will pump in more aid for the virus-weakened global economy.

But fear was still rampant that economies stood at the brink of recession. The travel industry is taking a beating: Europe’s airports said they expect 187 million fewer passengers this year.

“We are in a global panic,” said Estelle Brack, an economist in Paris. “We are in the deep unknown.”

Xi’s trip to Wuhan was the latest effort by the ruling Communist Party to shed a favorable light on its handling of the crisis. Xi was conspicuously absent from the public eye during the early days of the outbreak and alarms were not sounded until late January. Wuhan and nearby cities — over 60 million people — have been under lockdown since then.

Xi addressed patients and medical workers via a video link. He also strolled through an apartment complex where residents are still quarantined.

“Wuhan must prevail, Hubei must prevail, all of China must prevail,” Xi said.

With patient numbers falling, Wuhan closed the last of 16 temporary hospitals used mainly to house those with mild symptoms.

Authorities in Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, stepped up preparations for resuming business production, reopened some roads to restore agricultural production and announced the launch of a color-coded app-based system that will allow people who are deemed healthy to travel freely within the province.

But disruptions spread elsewhere, upending life in Italy in particular.

Italy’s far-reaching travel restrictions were to last through April 3 and violators risked up to three months in jail or fines of 206 euros ($225). Schools and universities stayed closed and bars and restaurants must shutter at dusk.

“Our habits must be changed, changed now,” Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said.

After some panic buying, Conte assured Italians supermarkets would remain open and stocked.

In Soave, a wine-producing town near Verona, normal bustling streets were nearly deserted. Cafe owner Valentino Bonturi said he was enforcing new restrictions to ensure patrons weren’t bunched too closely together, meaning no standing at counters anymore.

“We follow the rules,” he said.

In the U.S., President Donald Trump was planning to announce proposals Tuesday aimed at curbing the economic fallout from the outbreak. He said the measures would include payroll tax relief.

Trump dove into handshakes with supporters Monday and flew back from a Florida fundraiser with a lawmaker who later went into a voluntary quarantine because he came into contact with someone who had tested positive for the virus. Trump’s incoming chief of staff, too, went into quarantine, also stemming from concerns from a conservative political gathering attended by an infected person.

In California, the cruise ship Grand Princess, which had been forced to idle off the coast, docked at the port of Oakland, but only a few hundred of some 3,500 passengers and crew had gotten off by early Tuesday. All of the departing passengers face 14-day quarantines since the ship had at least 21 confirmed cases.

As the virus appeared in over 100 countries, the WHO weighed whether to declare the outbreak a pandemic. WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Monday that “the threat of a pandemic has become very real.”

Panama and Mongolia, which borders China, were the newest countries to announce infections.

From Associated Press

Sedensky reported from Bangkok; Leicester from Paris. Associated Press writers Colleen Barry in Soave, Italy; Nicole Winfield in Rome; Antonio Calanni in Milan; and Ken Moritsugu and Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed.


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.