ROME: About 60 million Italians were told on Tuesday to stay in their homes to help battle the most deadly coronavirus outbreak outside China, as some Asian nations expressed hope that their outbreaks were abating.

Italy recorded its deadliest day of the outbreak, with a death toll of 168, as airlines halted flights and neighbouring countries clamped down on its borders.

The country’s overall death toll has risen to 631 and the number of people infected to 10,149.

Meanwhile, Chinese leader Xi Jinping sought to ease concerns in the country where the virus was first detected in December, making his first visit to the epicentre of Wuhan and declaring the spread in the central city and Hubei province to be “basically curbed”.

On the world’s financial markets, stocks and oil bounced back on hopes of US economic stimulus measures, after suffering their biggest one-day losses in more than a decade on Monday.

Europe’s outbreak appears to be on upward trajectory

Official figures showed daily infections in China are at their lowest level since record-keeping began in January, with 19 new infections and 17 deaths recorded on Tuesday, after a similar flatlining of cases in South Korea. By contrast, Europe’s outbreak appeared to be on an upward trajectory.

Italy is the worst affected country outside China with more than 9,000 infections and 463 deaths and has posted huge jumps in cases each day for the past week.

China remains the hardest hit overall with more than 80,000 cases and over 3,000 deaths out of a global total of 114,151 cases and 4,102 deaths across 105 countries and territories, according to an AFP tally based on official data.

Reflecting the differing stages of the outbreak, China relaxed some of its most severe restrictions in Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak, at the same moment as several European countries went on full alert mode.

A slew of airlines announced they would cut all flights to Italy for the next few weeks while a number of European countries announced the closure of schools and bans on mass public events.

In the Middle East there were also signs of a deepening crisis, with Iran — the worst-affected in the region — registering 54 new deaths — the highest single-day toll so far in the country with the third deadliest outbreak in the world.

Strict lockdowns and travel restrictions were apparently successful in China but faced a rocky start in Italy, where Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte told residents they should travel only for the most urgent work or health reasons.

While squares in Milan and Rome were emptied of their usual bustle and traffic, some residents were confused as to whether they were even allowed to leave their homes for everyday tasks like shopping.

Queues formed outside supermarkets from Naples to Rome.

“I’m not scared of anything in particular but there is a general worry,” 85-year-old Grazia told AFP as she waited for groceries in the capital.

The confusion forced the government to clarify its decree and warn against panic-buying.

Pope Francis also seemed to muddy the waters, holding a mass in which he urged priests to go out and visit the sick — something specifically discouraged by Conte.

Governments elsewhere in Europe were also scrambling to balance their responses between restrictions and pushing out accurate information to avoid panic.

Italy’s northern neighbour Austria declared it would no longer admit people other than Austrians travelling from Italy unless they show medical need, one of the most severe steps taken by any European government.

Sport schedules have been wrecked across Europe, with Barcelona’s Champions League football match against Napoli next Wednesday the latest to fall prey to the virus — it will be played behind closed doors.

In a rare glimmer of positive news, the remaining guests at a hotel in Spain’s Canary Islands on lockdown left the building after a 14-day quarantine. But President Emmanuel Macron provided a reminder of Europe’s plight, warning that France was “just at the beginning” of its outbreak, Europe’s second most acute with more than 1,400 infected and 25 dead.

Published in Dawn, March 11th, 2020

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