It’s a pandemic: World Health Organization finally makes official call

By using the charged word “pandemic,”  the U.N. health agency sought to shock lethargic countries into pulling out all the stops.

By Associated Press

The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a pandemic and urged aggressive action from all countries to fight it, as U.S. stocks plunged into bear market territory and several American cities joined global counterparts in banning large gatherings.

By using the charged word “pandemic” after shying away from calling it so earlier, the U.N. health agency sought to shock lethargic countries into pulling out all the stops.

“We have called every day for countries to take urgent and aggressive action. We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear,” WHO’s chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday.

“All countries can still change the course of this pandemic. If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace and mobilize their people in the response,” he said. “We are deeply concerned by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction.”

President Donald Trump announced in an Oval Office address he is sharply restricting European passenger travel to the U.S. and moving to ease the pandemic’s economic costs.

The NBA became the first major American sports league to suspend play, which raised questions about college basketball’s championships, which for now will be played without fans attending. In Italy, soccer club Juventus said defender Daniele Rugani tested positive.

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Iran and Italy are the new front lines of the fight against the virus that started in China, the WHO said.

“They’re suffering but I guarantee you other countries will be in that situation soon,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies chief.

For the global economy, virus repercussions were profound, with increasing concerns of wealth- and job-wrecking recessions. U.S. stocks wiped out more than all the gains from a huge rally a day earlier as Wall Street continued to reel.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 1,464 points, bringing it 20% below its record set last month and putting it in what Wall Street calls a “bear market.” The broader S&P 500 is just 1 percentage point away from falling into bear territory and bringing to an end one of the greatest runs in Wall Street’s history.

WHO officials said they thought long and hard about labeling the crisis a pandemic — defined as sustained outbreaks in multiple regions of the world.

The risk of employing the term, Ryan said, is “if people use it as an excuse to give up.” But the benefit is “potentially of galvanizing the world to fight.”

Underscoring the mounting challenge: soaring numbers in the U.S. and Europe’s status as the new epicenter of the pandemic. While Italy exceeds 12,000 cases and the United States has topped 1,300, China reported a record low of just 15 new cases Thursday and three-fourths of its infected patients have recovered.

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China’s totals of 80,793 cases and 3,169 deaths are a shrinking portion of the world’s more than 126,000 infections and 4,600 deaths.

“If you want to be blunt, Europe is the new China,” said Robert Redfield, the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

With 12,462 cases and 827 deaths, Italy said all shops and businesses except pharmacies and grocery stores would be closed beginning Thursday and designated billions in financial relief to cushion economic shocks in its latest efforts to adjust to the fast-evolving crisis that silenced the usually bustling heart of the Catholic faith, St. Peter’s Square.

In Iran, by far the hardest-hit country in the Middle East, the senior vice president and two other Cabinet ministers were reported to have been diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus. Iran reported another jump in deaths, by 62 to 354 — behind only China and Italy.