Quarter of Italians on lockdown as virus sweeps globe

Gildas LE ROUX, Dmitry ZAKS
1 / 5
Italy's quarantine zones are home to more than 15 million people

A quarter of Italy's population was in lockdown Sunday as the government announced a spike in deaths, with infections soaring past 7,000, overtaking South Korea as the country with the highest number of cases after China.

Italy's COVID-19 death count nearly tripled from 133 to 366 and infections rose by a single-day record from 1,492 to 7,375.

The outbreak has now killed nearly 3,792 people and infected more than 109,000 in 99 countries and territories.

Italy's measures, in place until April 3, bar people from entering or leaving vast areas of the north, according to a decree published online.

Sunday saw Rome forced to close its blockbuster exhibition marking 500 years since the death of Renaissance master Raphael.

The head of the southern Puglia region pleaded with anyone thinking of travelling there from areas in lockdown to "stop and turn around ... Don't bring the epidemic to Puglia."

The lockdown, however, does allow for the return home of those who were in the affected areas but live elsewhere, including tourists.

Football matches also took place behind closed doors -- Italian Footballers' Association president Damiano Tommasi tweeted that "stopping football is the most useful thing for our country right now" as "the teams to cheer are playing in our hospitals, in emergency rooms."

Germany, with some 850 declared cases to date, Sunday banned gatherings of more than 1,000 people, as did France, where 19 have now died. Greece indicated it would follow the closed door approach to sporting events.

Neighbours Austria and Switzerland said they were monitoring the situation closely with both announcing the suspension of some transport links -- though borders remain open.

Italy's quarantine zones are home to more than 15 million people and include the regions around Venice and financial capital Milan.

A further ramification of the virus saw inmates revolt at four Italian prisons over new rules introduced to contain the outbreak, including a ban on family visits, prison officers union Osapp said.

- 'Bold, courageous' -

The World Health Organization praised Italy for its "bold, courageous steps", according to a tweet by its boss Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Pope Francis expressed solidarity with the virus victims in his first livestreamed prayer and message from the Vatican.

"I join my brother bishops in encouraging the faithful to live this difficult moment with the strength of faith, the certainty of hope and the fervour of charity," he said.

- Air and sea -

Iran earlier reported 49 new deaths, its highest toll for a single 24-hour period, taking the number of fatalities there to 194, one of the highest tolls outside of China. The virus has spread to all of Iran's 31 provinces with 6,566 confirmed cases.

Iran Air announced the suspension of all its flights to Europe until further notice.

Egypt reported a first confirmed death -- also Africa's first -- with the health ministry saying a German citizen had died in a tourist resort.

In the US, the contagion has spread to 30 states, killing at least 19 people.

Passengers on the US cruise ship Grand Princess, on which 21 of the 3,533 on board tested positive for the disease, will remain confined to their cabins in waters off San Francisco until Monday, when the vessel is due to dock in Oakland.

Another cruise ship, the Costa Fortuna, with around 2,000 aboard, was turned away by Malaysia and Thailand, an official said.

- 'Sombre moment' -

A report from the UN Conference on Trade, Investment and Development (UNCTAD) meanwhile warned that the virus spread could hit foreign direct investments worldwide by as much as 15 percent as international business reels.

In Russia, where 17 cases have been reported to date, authorities warned Moscow residents that anyone not respecting quarantine measures risked five years jail if such a violation resulted in a death.

South Korea currently has some 7,313 cases, and Sunday said its rate of infection was slowing.

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

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

Authorities said on Sunday that at least 10 people had died in the collapse of a hotel used as a coronavirus quarantine facility in Quanzhou, in eastern China.

Stock markets in the energy-dependent Gulf region plunged to multi-year lows Sunday after OPEC's failure to agree oil output cuts with its allies, especially Russia.

- Sport struck -

As well as the increasing disruption to European football, The Asian Champions League was put on temporary hold on Sunday, while organisers of Bahrain's Formula 1 Grand Prix scheduled for March 22 said the race would go ahead without spectators.

The Shanghai Grand Prix, slated for April 19, has already been postponed although the season-opening race in Australia on March 15 is set to go ahead as planned.

burs-bsp/cdw/har