NEW YORK: Shoppers wearing masks sanitise their hands at the Herald Square on Thursday. New York City’s mayor Bill de Blasio said he would announce restrictions on gatherings to halt the spread of coronavirus in the coming days.—AP
NEW YORK: Shoppers wearing masks sanitise their hands at the Herald Square on Thursday. New York City’s mayor Bill de Blasio said he would announce restrictions on gatherings to halt the spread of coronavirus in the coming days.—AP

BEIJING: Travellers scrambled to rebook flights and markets reeled on Thursday after US President Donald Trump imposed sweeping restrictions on travel from Europe, hitting battered airlines and heightening global alarm over coronavirus.

Saudi Arabia extended flight bans to the European Union and other countries, including Pakistan, after the number of coronavirus infections shot up in the region.

But China, where the disease originated, said its epidemic had peaked and the global spread could be over by June if other nations applied similarly aggressive containment measures as Beijing’s communist government.

Trump had downplayed risks to the United States during the crisis, but with epidemics ballooning from Iran to Italy and Spain, he limited travel from continental Europe for 30 days.

“This is the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus in modern history,” he said in a prime-time televised address from the Oval Office on Wednesday.

Markets went into a tailspin, with European shares plunging to their lowest in almost four years and oil slumping. US stock indexes lost another 7 per cent and triggered an automatic cutout shortly after the opening bell.

Trump’s move also sent weary and confused travellers rushing to airports to board the last flights back to the United States. “It caused a mass panic,” said 20-year-old Anna Grace, a US student at Suffolk University on her first trip to Europe, who rushed to Madrid’s Barajas airport at 5am to get back home.

The outbreak has disrupted industry, travel, entertainment and sports worldwide, even throwing the Tokyo Summer Olympics into question.

But its progress in the epicentre of China’s Hubei province has slowed markedly amid strict curbs on movement, including the lockdown of its capital Wuhan.

Hubei logged just eight new infections on Wednesday, the first time in the outbreak it has recorded a daily tally of less than 10. Beyond Hubei, mainland China had just seven new cases, six of them imported from abroad.

The Chinese government’s senior medical adviser, Zhong Nanshan, an 83-year-old epidemiologist renowned for helping combat the SARS outbreak in 2003, said the crisis could be over by mid-year.

“If all countries could get mobilised, it could be over by June,” he said. “But if some countries do not treat the infectiousness and harmfulness seriously, and intervene strongly, it would last longer.”

The virus has infected more than 126,000 people across the world, the vast majority in China, and killed 4,624, according to a tally.

Steps taken by Riyadh

Saudi Arabia, which had locked down its eastern Qatif region earlier this week, announced 24 new cases overnight, bringing its total to 45. It halted flights to the EU and 12 other countries, extending an earlier ban on 19 countries, state media said on Thursday.

Saudi citizens and residents in the affected jurisdictions have 72 hours to return to the kingdom, state news agency SPA said, citing an official source at the Interior Ministry.

Passenger traffic through all land crossings with Jordan was also suspended. Commercial and cargo traffic continued.

The kingdom’s latest flight ban includes Pakistan, Switzerland, India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Sudan, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Eritrea, Kenya, Djibouti and Somalia.

Millions of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia come from those countries. The decision excludes health workers in the kingdom from the Philippines and India as well as evacuation, shipping and trade trips, SPA said.

The kingdom has said it will impose a fine of up to 500,000 riyals on people who do not disclose health information and travel details at entry points.

Other preventive measures include suspending the Umrah pilgrimage; closing schools and cinemas nationwide; cancelling conferences and sporting events; and postponing a G20 ministerial meeting scheduled for next week.

Published in Dawn, March 13th, 2020