Quarter of Italians on lockdown as virus sweeps globe

ROME (AFP) – A quarter of the Italian population was locked down yesterday as the government took drastic steps to stop the spread of the deadly new coronavirus that is sweeping the globe, with Latin America recording its first fatality.

Italy has seen the most deaths from the COVID-19 disease of any country outside China, where the outbreak that has now killed more than 3,500 people and infected over 100,000 worldwide began in December.

The measures in place until April 3 bar people from entering or leaving vast areas of northern Italy without good reason, according to a decree signed by the prime minister and published online. The quarantine zones are home to more than 15 million people and include the regions around Venice and financial capital Milan, while cinemas, theatres and museums will be closed nationwide.

It comes as Argentina on Saturday became the first Latin American country to report a fatality from the virus that has affected 95 nations and territories.

Anxious passengers aboard a virus-hit United States (US) cruise ship were confined to their cabins in waters off San Francisco, after 21 people tested positive for the disease. The contagion has already spread to 30 US states, killing at least 19 people, with New York announcing a state of emergency.

A man wearing a protective mask passes by the Colosseum in Rome amid fear of the COVID-19 epidemic. PHOTO: AFP

The Grand Princess ship was given permission late Saturday to dock in Oakland.

Vice President Mike Pence, who is in charge of the US response to the outbreak, said earlier that all 3,533 passengers and crew would be tested for coronavirus and quarantined if necessary. The World Health Organisation (WHO) described worldwide virus cases passing the 100,000-mark as a “sombre moment”.

However in China, the number of new cases reported yesterday nationwide was the lowest in weeks, with nearly all 44 of them in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province and epicentre of the outbreak.

The government has hinted it may soon lift the quarantine imposed on Hubei, where some 56 million people have been effectively housebound since late January.

The only infections in China beyond Hubei were imported from abroad, including arrivals from Italy and Spain in Beijing.

The WHO said the efforts of China and other countries were “demonstrating that spread of the virus can be slowed” with the path of the disease even “reversed through the implementation of robust containment and control activities”.

As recorded deaths in Italy soared to 233 on Saturday, the Vatican announced Pope Francis’ Angelus prayer – normally delivered by the 83-year-old pontiff from his window – would be broadcast as a livestream.