Countries bolster virus defences as infections cross 150,000

Paris (France) (AFP) - Governments around the world on Saturday shut more borders, as US President Donald Trump said he had taken a coronavirus test and the number of global cases crossed 150,000.

France meanwhile ordered the closure of restaurants, bars, cinemas and nightclubs from midnight (2300 GMT Saturday) but said food shops, pharmacies, banks and tobacconists would remain open and local elections will go ahead on Sunday.

Trump -- who had been seen shaking hands a day ago contrary to medical advice -- said Saturday he had yet to receive the results of his test as the White House began checking the temperature of anyone coming into close contact with him or Vice President Mike Pence.

An AFP tally showed the number of COVID-19 cases worldwide at 151,760 at 1700 GMT Saturday with 5,764 deaths across 137 countries and territories.

In a sign of growing alarm, the US extended a travel ban imposed on European nations to the United Kingdom and Ireland. It will come into force midnight Monday.

A 30-day US ban on travel from the 26 countries of Europe's Schengen border-free zone announced earlier took effect on Saturday.

Norway said it was closing its airports and ports and tightening border checks from Monday. "This would mean in practice that nobody can enter Norway," Prime Minister Erna Solberg said.

- Borders and airports closed -

Nearby Denmark reported its first coronavirus death as Jordan suspended all flights, closed its borders and shut down schools, places of worship and banned public gatherings.

A week that saw schools and businesses shut down indefinitely, millions of travellers barred from crossing borders, celebrities and politicians become infected and the whole of Italy locked down ended with a flurry of government announcements.

Trump declared a national emergency and announced a $50 billion package, with similar measures being taken by governments from Austria to Canada on Saturday.

European nations ramped up border controls, with foreigners barred from crossing into Russia from Norway and Poland. Denmark and the Czech Republic also announced stringent restrictions and Morocco closed its borders despite having only eight cases.

Squares and streets from Milan to Madrid were deserted on Saturday as government calls to stay at home were heeded by most.

Some Italians took to singing to each other from their windows to beat the isolation.

The country that saw the biggest increase over the last 24 hours was Italy, which recorded 175 new deaths, while Iran had 97 and Spain 63.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed Europe as the epicentre of the pandemic after a dramatic slump in new cases in China, where the virus first emerged in December last year.

China registered just a handful of new infections on Saturday with tens of thousands of confirmed cases now recovered.

- Public health dilemmas -

The human cost is rapidly being matched by the economic cost -- financial markets endured a rollercoaster ride all week with spectacular losses triggered by fears of a global recession followed by huge gains after government spending pledges.

US tech giant Apple closed all of its stores outside China until March 27 while British Airways became the latest global firm to hint at drastic action to come, with CEO Alex Cruz telling staff to expect job losses.

Airlines have cancelled thousands of flights worldwide and some airports have shut terminals.

Italian luxury carmaker Ferrari meanwhile said Saturday it was suspending production for two weeks at two of its factories, citing "serious difficulties" as the country was in lockdown.

As economies reel and finance experts mull the impact, governments are also facing up to the public health dilemmas -- whether to try to stamp it out entirely with drastic restrictions or try to manage its spread.

British officials have argued for trying to flatten the curve, managing the outbreak to push the peak of the crisis to summer when hospitals will be able to cope better.

They argue this will help create "herd immunity", though experts are divided over whether there is evidence to support the theory.

- Football seasons curtailed -

"We don't know enough about the science of this virus, it hasn't been in our population for long enough," said the WHO's Margaret Harris.

Britain had resisted imposing any major restrictions, but the media reported on Saturday that a ban on large gatherings would come into force from next weekend.

The legislation could see the cancellation of events such as the Wimbledon tennis tournament and the Glastonbury music festival, due to begin at the end of June.

Most other governments in affected regions have already begun to take drastic action.

On Saturday, the Philippines introduced a night-time curfew in Manila, Saudi Arabia banned international flights, New Zealand said international travellers would have to self-isolate on arrival and Chile quarantined more than 1,300 people on two cruise ships after an elderly Briton aboard one of them tested positive for the coronavirus.

South Africa became the first sub-Saharan country to repatriate citizens from China with over 100 nationals who were working and studying in Wuhan city arriving back in their homeland on Saturday.

Africa has so far been spared the worst of the illness but Rwanda declared its first case on Saturday in a sign of the widening global spread and Madagascar said it was suspending flights to Europe for a month from March 20.

Also growing was the impact on the sporting calendar, with football seasons curtailed, Formula One races postponed and cricket tours called off.

Japan was forced to deny claims that the Tokyo Olympics could be called off as well, after Trump said "maybe they postpone it for a year".


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