South Korea raises virus alert level to 'highest' as cases surgeArchive
South Korea reported a sharp jump in coronavirus cases on Sunday, while Italy and Iran took drastic containment steps as worldwide fears over the epidemic spiralled.
The contagion's spread prompted the World Health Organisation (WHO) to warn that Africa's unprepared health systems left the continent vulnerable to the COVID-19 disease, which spilled out of China and has infected more than 77,000 people in more than 25 countries.
Already one of the worst-hit nations outside China, South Korea reported 123 new cases on Sunday, taking its total to 556.
The country is raising its alert level on the new coronavirus to the “highest”, President Moon Jae-in said on Sunday, in the face of a sudden spike in the number of infections.
“The COVID-19 incident faces a grave turning point. The next few days will be crucial.
“The government will raise the alert level to the highest level according to experts' recommendations,” Moon said following a government meeting on the virus.
Its death toll rose to four with two additional fatalities reported, a day after Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said South Korea faced a "grave" situation.
The Shincheonji Church of Jesus in the southern city of Daegu — considered by many a cult — has emerged as a hotbed of contagion, with hundreds of members infected.
Chung called on Koreans to avoid large gatherings, including religious services.
Italy and Iran began introducing the sort of containment measures previously seen only in China, which has put tens of millions of people under quarantine lockdown in the epicentre province of Hubei.
More than 50,000 people in about a dozen northern Italian towns near the business hub of Milan were urged by authorities to stay home, while shops and schools were shuttered.
Among dozens of cases, Italy on Friday became the first European country to report one of its nationals had died from the virus — a 78-year-old retired bricklayer in the region of Veneto.
That was followed on Saturday by the death of a 77-year-old woman in Lombardy.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said the government was weighing "extraordinary measures" to halt further infections.
China reported another 97 deaths in its daily update on Sunday, taking its total to 2,442, plus 648 new infections. Nearly 80,000 infections have been reported worldwide.
Chinese deaths and infections remain concentrated in the hard-hit city of Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have emanated from a live animal market in December.
China's infection rate has slowed sharply from earlier in the epidemic, but Chinese flip-flopping over counting methods has sowed confusion over its data.
There also was growing concern over the difficulty of detecting the virus.
Japan on Sunday confirmed that a woman who tested negative and disembarked from the coronavirus-stricken Diamond Princess cruise ship later tested positive.
Japan has already been criticised over its handling of the ship, which has seen more than 600 cases of COVID-19.
Many passengers were allowed to disembark without being properly tested or despite having close contact with infected people.
More than 1,000 crew remain on board and are expected to serve a 14-day quarantine.
Italian officials said all patients in Lombardy were linked to a 38-year-old man whom Italian media say dined in January with a friend who came from China, but who has since tested negative.
Iran ordered the closure of schools, universities and cultural centres across 14 provinces from Sunday following five deaths in the Islamic Republic — the most outside East Asia and the first in the Middle East.
Iran's outbreak surfaced on Wednesday and has quickly worsened with 28 cases confirmed.
"The concern is that we have seen a very rapid increase (in Iran) in a matter of a few days," said Sylvie Briand, director of the WHO's global infectious hazard preparedness department.
Iran's government also ordered all "art and cinema events" nationwide cancelled until the end of the coming week.
Iraq on Thursday clamped down on travel to and from Iran, and flag carrier Kuwait Airways has suspended flights to the country.
Although Egypt is the only African country with a confirmed case of COVID-19, the WHO warned that the continent's health systems were ill-equipped to cope with a potential major outbreak and urged more cooperation among the African Union.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said necessary treatment tools such as respiratory support machines are "in short supply in many African countries and that's a cause for concern".
The US State Department said global anxiety was being stoked by a coordinated effort by thousands of Russian-linked social media accounts to spread conspiracy theories that the outbreak was a US-orchestrated ploy to damage China, officials said.
Russia's foreign ministry dismissed the allegation as "deliberately false".