ROME: Almost 300 million students worldwide faced weeks at home on Thursday (Mar 5) with Italy the latest country to shut schools over the deadly coronavirus, as the IMF urged an all-out, global offensive against the epidemic.
More than 95,000 people have been infected and over 3,200 have died worldwide from the virus, which has now reached some 80 countries and territories.
READ: Italy closes schools as COVID-19 death toll hits 107
The vast majority of global deaths and infections are in China, where the virus first emerged late last year, prompting the country to quarantine entire cities, temporarily shut factories and close schools indefinitely.
As the virus spread, other countries have also implemented extraordinary measures, with UNESCO saying Wednesday that 13 countries have closed schools, affecting 290.5 million children, while nine others have implemented localised closures.
While temporary school closures during crises are not new, UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay said, “the global scale and speed of the current educational disruption is unparalleled and, if prolonged, could threaten the right to education”.
Italy on Wednesday ordered schools and universities shuttered until Mar 15, ramping up its response as the national death toll rose to 107, the deadliest outbreak outside China.
South Korea – the country with the largest number of cases outside China with nearly 6,000 – has postponed the start of the current term until Mar 23.
READ: COVID-19 fatality rate higher than the flu, says WHO
In Japan, nearly all schools are closed after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for classes to be cancelled through March and spring break, slated for late March through early April.
Some 120 schools closed in France this week in areas with the largest numbers of infections.
The German health minister said the outbreak was now a “global pandemic” – a term the World Health Organization has stopped short of using, meaning the virus is spreading in several regions through local transmission.
Infections are now rising faster abroad than they are in China, where 31 more deaths and 139 new cases were reported Thursday. China’s death toll now stands at 3,012, with over 80,000 infections.
From western Europe to eastern Asia, supermarket shelves have been stripped of supplies in recent weeks, including toilet paper and hand sanitiser.
American businesses are increasingly concerned over access to goods and the overall economic outlook is more uncertain, the US Federal Reserve said in its beige book survey released on Wednesday.
With the US toll rising to 11 on Wednesday, lawmakers in Congress reached a deal to provide more than US$8 billion to fight the outbreak.
READ: WHO urges stocking up on ventilators to combat coronavirus
The virus impact has spread beyond supply chains – stock markets have rumbled as warnings from financial bodies mount that countries could be pushed into recession.
The IMF said the epidemic posed a “serious threat” and would slow global growth to below last year’s 2.9 per cent.
“At a time of uncertainty … it is better to do more than to do not enough,” IMF chief Kristalina Georgieva said.
The epidemic “is a global problem calling for global response”, she said.
Eurozone ministers agreed after a meeting that they were ready to “use all appropriate policy tools to achieve strong, sustainable growth”.
As the virus continues its march across the world, governments are scrambling to tighten prevention efforts.
Italy has seen its outbreak swell despite tough measures, including a quarantine of 11 towns with 50,000 people.
New measures include a month-long nationwide ban on fan attendance at sports events, as well as advising people to avoid greetings like kissing on the cheek or shaking hands.
READ: Virus fears prompt Italy to ban kisses, handshakes
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conti said the country could tackle the outbreak as long as it remained contained.
“But in case of exponential growth, not just Italy but any other country in the world would not be able to manage the situation,” he said.
In Iran, where 92 people have died from the disease, schools have been shut and major cultural and sporting events suspended.
Saudi Arabia has suspended the year-round “umrah” pilgrimage, an unprecedented move that raises fresh uncertainty over the annual hajj.
Countries also continue to crack down on international travel.
Israel extended its mandatory quarantine measures – already in place for travellers from Italy and some Asian countries – to cover people from France, Germany, Spain, Austria and Switzerland.
Even cinemagoers were not immune from the effects of the virus – the producers of the latest James Bond film pushed back the release of the forthcoming “No Time To Die” from April to November.