Schools are set to reopen in parts of China as the central province of Hubei – excluding the provincial capital Wuhan – reported no new cases of the coronavirus over the past 24 hours for the first time since the outbreak began last year.
The announcement of the return to classes came as confirmed cases of the virus worldwide approached 100,000, and the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that some countries were not showing the political commitment needed to “match the level of the threat we all face”.
In Europe, Germany, France and the UK have all reported big rises in cases in the past 24 hours. On Friday the first confirmed cases were reported in Cameroon, Serbia, Bhutan and Vatican City.
In Asia, a diplomatic row erupted between Japan and South Korea after Tokyo said it would quarantine all passengers arriving from the country.
While Hubei reported no new cases over the past 24 hours, Wuhan, the centre of the epidemic, said it had confirmed 126 new cases of the virus on Thursday.
In a sign that parts of China are returning to normal, schools in provinces that have logged no new cases for more than a fortnight began to set dates for school reopenings.
Qinghai, a north-western province in China that had reported no new infections for 29 days as of 5 March, said it would stagger the start date of different school days from 11 March to 20 March, according to a notice posted on an official website on Friday.
The south-western province of Guizhou, which reported no new infections for 18 days, had said at the end of February that schools would reopen from 16 March.
Meanwhile, diplomatic tempers flared following Japan’s decision to quarantine all passengers arriving from South Korea, which has the highest number of Covid-19 cases outside China.
From Saturday, anyone arriving in Japan from South Korea will be placed in two weeks’ quarantine at government designated sites, the prime minister, Shinzo Abe said on Thursday.
The Seoul government described the move as “unreasonable, excessive and extremely regrettable”, accused Japan of failing to address its own outbreak properly, and threatened retaliatory measures.
The International Olympic Committee and Tokyo 2020 organisers have insisted the Games will open as planned on 24 July, but speculation is growing that they will have to be cancelled because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Germany on Friday reported 134 new cases, taking its total to 534. There are now 423 confirmed cases in France, where seven have died. In the UK, cases doubled in two days to 116 on Thursday, when it reported its first death. Dutch health authorities reported the first death there on Friday.
On Thursday night, the WHO repeated its warning that individual countries are responsible for dealing with the disease within their borders – and that some governments need to do more.
“This is not a drill,” said the organisation’s chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “This epidemic is a threat for every country, rich and poor.” While he did not single out any culprits, Tedros said not all countries were demonstrating “the level of political commitment” required to “match the level of the threat we all face”.
He called for “aggressive preparedness” and for the heads of government in every country to take charge of the response and “coordinate all sectors”, rather than leaving it to health ministries.
Another global health expert counselled against both complacency and panic, arguing that while the coronavirus outbreak was not as bad as the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, it was deadlier than the swine flu pandemic, let alone the seasonal flu.
“The fear has always been: ‘Is this another 1918?’ The straight definitive answer is no,” said Prof Gabriel Leung, the chair of public health medicine at Hong Kong university medical school and the founding director of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Infectious Disease Epidemiology and Control. “But some have … dismissively said, ‘Oh it’s just like the flu’. It’s not.”
Speaking in Hong Kong on Friday, Leung said that the longer containment could be maintained, the fewer people would become ill. “This is where lives are at stake, particularly older adults over the age of 60 and 70,” he said.
As the outbreak continued to spread in the US, the Trump administration was forced on to the defensive, amid criticism of its approach to the virus which has now seen the number of cases rise from 15 to 233 in the past week. Twelve people have died, 11 of them in Washington state.
The president, who last week claimed the risk in the US was “very low” and that the number of cases would be zero in “a few days”, faced questions at an election town hall event in Scranton, Pennsylvania on Thursday night. His vice-president, Mike Pence, who is in charge of the US response, admitted that the country did not have enough testing kits to meet demand.
Asked if the virus would hurt the economy, Trump admitted for the first time that “it might have an impact” before declaring: “It’s going to all work out. Everybody has to be calm. We have plans for every single possibility and I think that’s what we have to do. We hope it doesn’t last too long.”
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