BANGKOK >> Crossing more borders, the new coronavirus hit a milestone Friday, infecting more than 100,000 people worldwide as it wove itself deeper into the daily lives of millions, infecting the powerful, the unprotected poor and the vast masses in between.
The virus, which has killed nearly 3,400 people, edged into more U.S. states, popped up in at least four new countries and even breached the halls of the Vatican. It forced mosques in Iran and beyond to halt weekly Muslim prayers. It blocked pilgrims from Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem. And it upended Japan’s plans for the Olympic torch parade.
As markets dived anew, repercussions of the virus rattled livelihoods in the real economy, too.
“Who is going to feed their families?” asked Elias al-Arja, head of a hotel owners’ union in Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where tourists have been banned and the storied Church of the Nativity shuttered.
At the White House, President Donald Trump signed a $8.3 billion bill to fight the coronavirus and an official said Trump’s administration was considering some type of support to hard-hit industries like travel and tourism. In Geneva, the U.N. health agency said it had received applications for 40 possible virus tests, had 20 vaccine candidates in development and reported that numerous clinical trials of experimental drugs for the new coronavirus were under way.
“We’re all in this together. We all have a role to play,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, chief of the World Health Organization, urging more global cooperation from the business world and solidarity with the poorest.
Yet even as COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, reached 90 countries, more than half of those who contracted the virus have now recovered. And it’s retreating in China, where it first emerged, and nearby South Korea.
Questions swirled around whether Iran could control its outbreak, as the number of reported infections jumped beyond 4,700 on Friday, with 124 deaths. Iran was setting up checkpoints to limit travel, urging people to stop using paper money and had firefighters spray disinfectant on an 11-mile stretch of Tehran’s most famous avenue.
“It would be great if they did it every day,” grocery store owner Reza Razaienejad said after the spraying. “It should not be just a one-time thing.”
The 100,000 figure of global infections is largely symbolic, but dwarfs other major outbreaks in recent decades, such as SARS, MERS and Ebola. The virus is still much less widespread than annual flu epidemics, which result in up to 5 million cases annual severe cases around the world and from 290,000 to 650,000 deaths annually, according to WHO.
Yet there was no denying that the epidemic’s economic impact was snowballing. World stocks and the price of oil dropped sharply again Friday. A sharp drop in travel and a broader economic downturn linked to the outbreak threatened to hit already-struggling communities for months to come.
The head of the U.N.’s food agency, the World Food Program, warned of the potential for “absolute devastation” as the outbreak’s effects ripple through Africa and the Middle East. India scrambled to stave off an epidemic that could overwhelm its under-funded, under-staffed health care system, which does not nearly enough labs or hospitals for its 1.3 billion people.
“We’re seeing more countries affected with lower incomes, with weaker health systems and that’s more concerning,” WHO chief Ghebreyesus said.
White collar workers can log onto laptops from home, but health care workers, waiters, delivery workers, cashiers, drivers, museum attendants and others don’t have that option. And sick leave policies or health insurance coverage are inconsistent around the world, putting millions of workers’ earnings at risk. In the U.S. the AFL-CIO labor federaion urged the government to issue emergency regulations outlining employers’ responsibilities to protect workers from infectious diseases.
The fear and the crackdowns that swept through China are now shifting westward, as workers in Europe and the U.S. stay home, authorities vigorously sanitize public places and consumers flock to stores for household staples. Nation after nation put some travel restrictions into place, blocking visitors from hard-hit areas like China, South Korea, Italy and Iran.
“The Western world is now following some of China’s playbook,” said Chris Beauchamp, a market analyst at the financial firm IG.
German airline Lufthansa said it and its subsidiaries will reduce their capacity over the coming weeks to as little as 50% of the level before the coronavirus crisis hit, reflecting plummeting demand for air travel.
The spectacle of a Grand Princess cruise ship ordered to stay at sea off the California coast over virus fears replicated ones weeks ago on the other side of the globe in which hundreds of people on the Diamond Princess cruise ship were infected even during a quarantine.
Thailand on Friday blocked a separate cruise ship from docking, worried because it carried dozens of passengers from Italy, which with 148 virus deaths is the center of Europe’s epidemic.
In the U.S. the number of cases passed 230, scattered across 18 states. The University of Washington announced Friday it would stop holding holding classes at its three Seattle-area campuses and teach students online instead, a decision that affects some 57,000 students. The state has at least 70 confirmed COVID-19 cases, most in the Seattle area.
COVID-19 is a flu-like illness that for most people causes mild or moderate symptoms such as fever and cough but can hit elderly or sick people much harder. French President Emmanuel Macron visited a retirement home in Paris on Friday to reassure the elderly and health care workers about France’s readiness to combat the virus, which has infected nearly 600 of its citizens.
“The priority of the nation is to protect our elderly people,” Macron said. “We must do it with responsibility, common sense and measures of discipline, and without any panic.”
China reported 143 new cases Friday and South Korea had 505 more cases, down from earlier daily tallies. But the numbers kept growing in Europe. Serbia threatened to deploy the army to keep the virus at bay, and Hungary used virus fears to tighten its doors against migrants.
The Netherlands reported its first virus death Friday while Serbia, Slovakia, Peru and Cameroon announced their first infections. Even Vatican City was hit, with the tiny city-state confirming its first case Friday. The Vatican has insisted that 83-year-old Pope Francis, who has been sick, only has a cold.
WHO officials warned against having “false hopes” that the virus could fade away when warmer summer temperatures come to northern countries.
“Every day we slow down the epidemic is another day governments can prepare their health workers to detect, test, treat and care for patients,” the WHO chief told reporters. “Every day we slow down the epidemic is another day closer to having vaccines and therapeutics, which can, in turn, prevent infections and save lives.”