Europe locks down as global virus panic spreads

March 18, 2020

PARIS (AFP) — European leaders plan to ban all non-essential travel into the continent on Tuesday, the latest drastic attempt to curb the coronavirus pandemic that has upended society, battered markets and killed thousands around the world.

With French President Emmanuel Macron describing the battle against COVID-19 as a "war", governments around the world are imposing restrictions rarely seen in peacetime, slamming borders shut and forcing citizens to stay home.

The crisis is infecting every sector of the economy and Wall Street stocks on Monday sank more than 12 percent in the worst session since the crash of 1987, despite emergency interventions by central banks and governments to shore up confidence.

After the initial outbreak in a Chinese city in December, Europe has emerged as the epicentre of the virus with more deaths now recorded outside China than inside.

Italy -- Europe's hardest-hit nation -- announced another surge in deaths, taking its overall toll to more than 2,000, in a worldwide total of more than 7,000.

More than 175,530 cases have been recorded in 145 countries.

In a sombre address to the nation, Macron ordered the French to stay at home for 15 days starting midday Tuesday, banning all non-essential trips or social contacts and warning violations would be "punished".

With European nations already closing their borders, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said she would ask the leaders of the bloc's Schengen visa-free border zone to stop all non-essential travel into the area.

"Concretely, all trips between non-European countries and EU countries will be suspended for 30 days," Macron said in his address.

This follows a ban on inbound travel to the United States, whose President Donald Trump steeled the nation for a fight against the virus that he warned could last months.

US health officials said the first human trial to evaluate a possible vaccine had begun, although it may be another year to 18 months before it becomes available.

In another small glimmer of hope, China reported just one new domestic case on Tuesday -- but found 20 imported from abroad.

Trump said he was asking Americans to restrict gatherings to groups of fewer than 10 people -- as the streets of New York and the capital Washington stood largely deserted.

One customer at a French restaurant in Brooklyn said she felt the moves were unprecedented.

"I want strong leadership, but it's scary. I've never experienced anything like this before and I don't think my parents have, I don't think anyone has," Kelly McGee told AFP.

"There's something about being in this apocalyptic vibe and being with other people and experiencing it together that I think I still crave."

Trump acknowledged the United States "may be" heading into a recession due to the virus, as G7 leaders vowed to coordinate their response to the virus and "do whatever it takes, using all policy tools" -- after a meeting held via videoconference.

Every sector from tourism to food to aviation is affected, as the global economy effectively goes into shutdown.

European car makers including Fiat Chrysler and Peugeot began shutting down their factories and major world airlines axed almost all flights temporarily, triggering pleas to help carriers survive.

Emergency measures by the US Federal Reserve and the Bank of Japan failed to lift spirits on Wall Street, which plunged nearly 13 percent.

Asian stocks continued the volatility, with Japan's Nikkei 225 swinging from red to green in a choppy session but eventually ending 0.1 percent up. Australia's stock market ended up nearly six percent after shedding nearly 10 percent the day before.