GENEVA — The World Health Organization called the new coronavirus outbreak a pandemic on Wednesday, issuing a grim warning that the global spread and severity of the illness was due to “alarming levels of inaction”.
The call came as Europe faced a mounting number of cases — including a slew of new countries clocking first deaths — prompting governments to roll out increasingly tough measures to slow the rapid spread of the virus.
The number of cases across the globe has risen to more than 124,000 with 4,500 deaths, including a jump in fatalities particularly in Iran and Italy, according to an AFP tally.
The majority of cases have been in China where the outbreak first emerged in December, but as the number of new infections has steadied in the country, hotspots have emerged elsewhere — namely Italy, Iran and Spain.
The head of the UN’s top health body for the first time characterized the outbreak as a pandemic, meaning it is spreading in several regions through local transmission.
“We have never before seen a pandemic sparked by a coronavirus,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday, adding that the declaration would not change the organization’s response to the outbreak.
“We’re deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction.”
He did not single out any nations for not doing enough — or what further measures were needed. He instead called on “countries to take urgent and aggressive action”.
Signs of a widening European crisis emerged Wednesday, with Ireland, Albania, Belgium, Sweden and Bulgaria registering their first deaths, while Italy clocked more than 2,300 new cases in the last 24 hours and infections in Spain jumped by a quarter to more than 2,100.
The surge brought Europe’s total number of cases to more than 22,000, with 930 deaths, and the US said it was considering issuing a ban on travelers from the continent.
Millions of people in Italy are grappling with a nationwide clampdown that has emptied streets, shuttered shops and disrupted train and air travel.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said Wednesday that Italy would shut all stores except for pharmacies and food shops to curb the disease.
Factories and other big businesses can remain open as long as they adopt “appropriate security measures to prevent contagion,” Conte said
His government vowed to spend up to 25 billion euros ($28 billion) to help contain fallout from the pandemic, including cash injections for hard-hit hotels and restaurants and allowing families to suspend some mortgage payments.