Nations around the world girded for months of disruptions from the new virus Thursday as its unrelenting spread brought ballooning infections, economic fallout and sweeping containment measures.
“Countries should be preparing for sustained community transmission,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, leader of the World Health Organization, said of the 2-month-old virus outbreak. “Our message to all countries is: This is not a one-way street. We can push this virus back. Your actions now will determine the course of the outbreak in your country.”
In places around the globe, a split was developing. China has been issuing daily reports of new infections that are drastically down from their highs, factories there are gradually reopening and there is a growing sense that normalcy might not be that far off. Meanwhile, countries elsewhere are seeing escalating caseloads and a litany of cancellations, closures, travel bans and supply shortages.
There are about 17 times as many new infections outside China as in it, WHO said, with widening outbreaks in South Korea, Italy and Iran responsible for a majority.
“We are seeing this rapid escalation around the world,” said Dr. Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University in the United States. “At this point I believe things will get much worse before they get better.”
Desperate to keep a crisis from expanding within their borders, countries have been further tightening travel restrictions.
Australia said Thursday that it is banning travel from South Korea by those who aren’t Australian citizens or permanent residents, following similar bans for China and Iran. Indonesia announced restrictions on travelers from specific parts of Iran, Italy and South Korea after previously banning travel from China. The United Arab Emirates warned its people not to travel anywhere abroad and said those who do could be subject to quarantines when they return.
Sri Lankans arriving from Italy, South Korea and Iran will be quarantined at a hospital for leprosy patients, health authorities announced.
Still, no country has matched China’s willingness to turn to draconian measures to keep the virus from spreading, but around the world, governments took drastic steps.
Italy closed all schools and universities and forbade fans from attending sporting events. Saudi Arabia barred citizens from Islam’s holiest sites. In the United States, where 11 have died from the virus, hundreds of people were placed in self-quarantines due to cases in a New York suburb.
In places around Europe and the U.S., anxiety was causing supplies of hand sanitizer and face masks to sell out, as people stood in snaking lines to stock up on food and water.
“A new risk is always scarier than one we’re familiar with because it has elements of the unknown,” said David Ropeik, who authored the book “How Risky Is It, Really?”