Lockdowns, stocks down as virus fight shifts away from China

MADRID (AP) — The global battle to contain the coronavirus breached a new level of urgency Monday, as governments locked down borders, millions of workers, students and worshipers were ordered to stay home, and pleas went out to funnel masks and ventilators to places struggling with soaring caseloads.

The shifting fronts in the battle were made clear by figures showing that cases outside China — where the virus originated — surpassed those inside its borders for the first time. In Spain’s capital, a surge in the number of patients raised fears that the crisis is spreading.

On Wall Street, financial markets plunged by more than 8 percent, surpassing drops in Asia and Europe, as worried investors struggled to estimate the outbreak’s rippling economic fallout.

Spain officially became the fourth-most infected country in the world, surpassing South Korea as its arc of contagion curved higher.

Only China, Italy and Iran have more confirmed cases of COVID-19 than Spain, where the number of infections increased overnight by roughly 20%, to 9,191, and the number of fatalities rose to 309, according to the Spanish Health Ministry. The actual figure was presumed to be even higher, because Spain switched to a new system of reporting.

Countries including Canada, Switzerland, Germany and Spain announced sharp new restrictions on the movement of people across their borders.

“We have a window of time at the moment to slow the spread of the virus,” said Ulrike Demmer, a spokeswoman for Germany’s government, which reversed its earlier insistence that border controls would not work. It imposed new limits on crossings with France, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark and Luxembourg, after cases of the virus increased by more than 1,000 over 24 hours.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen sugggested a 30-day ban on people entering the bloc for non-essential travel reasons in an effort to curb the spread of the virus.

“The less travel, the more we can contain the virus,” she said in a video message.

Von der Leyen said people with long-term EU residency or who are family members of European citizens, plus diplomats, doctors and health care workers could be exempted from the ban. Transport workers could also be exempt to help keep goods flowing.

The measure would be a step up from national border controls imposed by numerous EU member states including Italy, Spain and Germany.

Among the most drastic measures, the Swiss city-state of Geneva banned gatherings of more than five people, though exceptions were made for business meetings that followed public health rules.

Switzerland’s government declared a state of emergency, ordering shops, restaurants, bars and other facilities to be shut down. The measures exclude health-care operations as well as supermarkets, but also include entertainment and leisure facilities, which will be closed until April 19.

“We need to do everything possible to slow the advance of the coronavirus,” Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga said, urging people to practice social distancing and follow government guidelines.

Still, some countries resisted such strong measures.

Unlike most of its European neighbors, Britain has not closed bars and restaurants, banned large events or shut schools to slow the spread of the virus. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman said closing schools hadn’t been ruled out, but “the scientific and medical advice is that that’s not a step which we should be taking at this point in time.”

At the same time the British government was asking manufacturers, including automakers such as Ford and Rolls-Royce, to make ventilators for coronavirus patients. Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Sky News that the U.K. had about 5,000 ventilators but would need “many times more than that.”

In Asia, where the virus has been a brutal fact of life for months, authorities urged vigilance to keep hard-won gains against the microscopic foe that has shut down travel, severely rattled financial markets, upended daily life and was threatening the livelihoods of millions.

“If we loosen our grip on the quarantine, it could be just a matter of time for the embers of small-scale cluster infections to be revived,” the South Korean Dong-a Ilbo newspaper said in an editorial Monday.

New rules governing daily life cascaded around the globe, restricting bars, restaurants, school and work. Resorts closed on the Las Vegas strip. Many restaurants offered only takeout, if they were open at all. Schools, concerts, sporting events — even small-scale St. Patrick’s Day parties — were canceled.

In the United States, health officials recommended a limit to groups of 50 or more people and a government expert said a 14-day national shutdown may be needed. Americans returning from abroad encountered chaotic airport health screenings that clearly broke all virus-fighting rules against having packed crowds close together.

For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But severe illness can occur, especially in the elderly and people with existing health problems. Worldwide, more than 179,000 people have been infected and more than 7,000 have died. Over 78,000 have recovered, most of them in China.

Governors in California, Illinois and Ohio told all bars and restaurants to close or reduce their number of customers. New York City will shutter the nation’s largest public school system as early as Tuesday, sending over 1.1 million children home.

With fears increasing that the pandemic will depress U.S. economic growth, the Federal Reserve took emergency action by slashing its benchmark interest rate to near zero and deciding to buy $700 billion in Treasury and mortgage bonds.

China, where the virus was first detected in December, now accounts for less than half of the world’s cases, according to Johns Hopkins University. On Monday, China relaxed travel restrictions in the hardest-hit virus province of Hubei, sending thousands of workers back to jobs at factories desperate to get production going again.

The move came as Chinese officials said the outbreak had mostly run its course domestically but they remained vigilant against imported cases. Starting Monday, travelers arriving in Beijing from overseas will be quarantined for 14 days in designated facilities at their own expense.

While traffic began returning to Beijing, office buildings were enforcing strict screenings for fever and many restaurants still only offered takeout. Children who would usually be snowed under with classes remained glued to computer screens, shopping, chatting and watching video clips.

South Korea on Monday reported only 74 more cases but there were still worries that infections might surge again from those returning from Europe or from local people attending church services. Some urged authorities to further postpone the new school year.

South Korean Prime Minister Chung Se-kyun called the country’s decline in cases a “hopeful sign” but said South Korea should “never loosen its guard.” Malaysia’s leader announced a drastic two-week lockdown, with travel in and out of the country banned and only essential services allowed to remain open. Malaysia reported a sharp spike of 315 new cases in the last two days to raise its total to 553.

India further tightened its borders, while Greenland and Somalia reported their first confirmed cases of COVID-19. Somalia has one of Africa’s weakest health systems after nearly three decades of conflict between the government and the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab extremist group.

Ireland ordered all pubs and bars to close for two weeks — including on Tuesday, St. Patrick’s Day. A German medical adviser urged people not to hold “corona parties” at home amid a shutdown of bars and clubs.

In the Croatian capital, Zagreb, the public company in charge of the city’s cemeteries told people to bury their loved ones only in the presence of closest relatives to avoid the spread of the new coronavirus.

Turkey’s highest religious authorities suspended Friday prayers in tens of thousands of mosques across the country.

Italy reported another jump in infections Monday, up more than 3,000 to 27,980. With 2,158 deaths — including 349 more in just the last 24 hours — Italy now accounts for well over a quarter of the global death toll. Cases, however, slowed in Lombardy, the hardest-hit region.

The Italian government on Monday approved 25 billion euros ($27.8 billion) in emergency aid to help families, workers and employers confront the coronavirus emergency and activate lines of credit for another 350 billion euros.

In Spain, a cut in the frequency of commuter trains created considerable crowds Monday morning in Atocha, one of Madrid’s main train stations.

Wearing blue latex gloves, cleaner Mari Carmen Ramírez said she, like many others, couldn’t afford to risk her salary of 950 euros ($1,042) per month.

“I fear the coronavirus, but I fear more not being able to pay the utility bills,” said the 55-year-old. “When this is all over, how are we going to eat?”