The World Health Organization has stepped up its calls for intensified action to fight the coronavirus pandemic, imploring countries “not to let this fire burn”, as Spain said it would declare a 15-day state of emergency from Saturday.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director general, said Europe – where the virus is present in all 27 EU states and has infected 25,000 people – had become the centre of the epidemic, with more reported cases and deaths than the rest of the world combined apart from China.
Across the continent and beyond, governments on Friday closed schools, sealed borders, cancelled top-flight cultural and sporting events and imposed tough social distancing measures. Some declared a state of emergency.
Maria van Kerkhove, head of the WHO’s emerging diseases unit, said it was impossible to say when the pandemic would peak globally.
Tedros stressed that countries should take a comprehensive approach. “Not testing alone,” he said. “Not contact tracing alone. Not quarantine alone. Not social distancing alone. Do it all. Find, isolate, test and treat every case, to break the chains of transmission … Do not just let this fire burn.”
As the number of confirmed cases in Spain passed 4,200 and the death toll rose to 120, the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, said the government would “mobilise all resources”, including the military, to contain the outbreak. “This is an emergency that affects the life and health of all,” he said.
Sánchez said the cabinet would on Saturday activate article 116 of the constitution, allowing it to limit the movement of people and vehicles, requisition goods, take over factories and businesses and ration the consumption of basic items.
But he added that victory over the virus would depend not just on decrees but on “each and everyone of us, in our homes, in our workplaces, with our families and with our neighbours. Being a hero is also about washing your hands, staying at home, and protecting yourself in order to protect others.”
Madrid’s regional government announced that all shops, cafés, bars, restaurants, cinemas, gyms and non-food shops would be closed for two weeks from Saturday.
The Catalan president, Quim Torra, announced plans to close off the north-eastern Spanish region and called on the central government to assist by authorising the closure of ports, airports and railways. “The evolution of the contagion calls for most drastic action,” Torra said on Friday night. “We need to restrict entry and exit to protect ourselves.”
Denmark said it would close its borders to all except its own nationals and legal residents at midday on Saturday until 13 April. “All tourists and foreigners who cannot prove they have a credible reason to be in Denmark will not be allowed to enter,” the prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, said.
France, which has reported 3,600 confirmed cases and 79 deaths, on Friday restricted all gatherings to a maximum of 100 people, hours after President Emmanuel Macron said the country faced its worst public health crisis in a century. France would do “all it takes” to preserve its economy, jobs and businesses, he said.
Following Belgium’s example, Austria on Friday closed all shops except food stores, supermarkets and pharmacies, ordered bars and restaurants to close at 3pm, and told employers to allow home working, while Switzerland closed schools, banned public gatherings of more than 100 and restricted bars and restaurants to 50 customers.
Italy, by far the hardest-hit European country, with 17,660 confirmed infections and 1,266 deaths, is already in a nationwide lockdown, with all travel banned unless certified necessary on professional or health grounds and the 62 million population expected to stay mainly at home.
The Covid-19 pandemic has infected more than 135,000 people and killed just over 5,000, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker, disrupting travel, closing schools, shutting factories and cancelling sporting, cultural and political events.
In the US, Donald Trump declared a national emergency, freeing up federal funds for testing and treatment as well as help individuals and businesses struggling with the economic impact. But he refused to take the blame for the sluggish US response to the crisis. “I don’t take responsibility at all,” he said.
In other developments:
Jair Bolsonaro’s son denied local media reports that the Brazilian president had tested positive.
The Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau governed remotely from home, in self-imposed quarantine after his wife tested positive following a visit to the UK.
Iran said its Revolutionary Guards will clear streets, shops and public places of people within the next 24 hours, in a dramatic escalation of the country’s containment efforts. Its death toll rose to 514, with 11,364 confirmed cases.
India and Norway announced their first deaths, while Ghana, Kenya and Ethiopia confirmed their first infections.
France joined Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and others in cancelling professional football. The Champions League was postponed.
The Louvre, the world’s most visited museum, closed until further notice.
The Portuguese government put the country on a state of alert and the Bulgarian parliament voted unanimously to declare a state of emergency.
The entire Romanian cabinet went into quarantine after coming into contact with a senator who has tested positive.
The Czech government banned all foreign travellers from entering and all Czechs from leaving the country from 16 March.
Hungary’s nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orbán, said foreigners and migration were to blame for the emergence and spread of the virus in Hungary.
Germany reported 3,634 confirmed infections on Friday, and eight deaths. In a brief press conference, the chancellor, Angela Merkel, pledged government support for the economy and for society “on all levels”.
She described the widespread closure of schools, the announcement of a massive credit programme for businesses and a work reduction programme to support workers and employers as far-reaching measures that would help ease the burden.
In contrast to the financial crisis of 2008/9, she said, “The opponent – if I may put it like that – is a virus that we don’t know, we don’t know how to combat it either, through vaccines or medicine. And that’s why we have to act where we can do so in the most vigorous way we can.”
In Asia, meanwhile, evidence grew that in China the outbreak has passed its peak and in South Korea it is easing. For the second day in a row Wuhan, the Chinese city at the centre of the outbreak, reported a single-digit tally of new cases, while surrounding Hubei province has recorded no new infections for eight days.
South Korea, once the biggest centre of coronavirus cases after China, on Friday reported more recoveries than new infections for the first time: 177 people were released from hospital, while 114 new cases were confirmed.
Officials said new clusters of infections remained a concern and warned the epidemic was not yet over. “We’ve managed to turn the corner, but there are concerns about overseas inflows, as well as possible infections around call centres, computer cafes and karaoke rooms,” the prime minister, Chung Sye-kyun, said.