290 million students out of school as global virus battle intensifies
Students AFP/File / Sam Yeh

Almost 300 million students worldwide faced weeks at home with Italy the latest country to shut schools over the deadly new coronavirus, as the IMF urged an all-out global offensive against the epidemic.

More than 95,000 people have been infected and over 3,200 have died worldwide from the virus, which by Thursday had reached some 80 countries and territories.

In California, Governor Gavin Newsom declared an emergency following the state's first coronavirus fatality -- raising the US death toll to 11 -- and a cruise ship was kept offshore after passengers and crew members developed symptoms.

Switzerland reported on Thursday its first death from the outbreak, a 74-year-old woman, while Bosnia confirmed its first two cases.

AFP / John SAEKI I will survive: but for how long?

The vast majority of global deaths and infections are in China, where the virus first emerged late last year, prompting the country to quarantine entire cities, temporarily shut factories and close schools indefinitely.

As the virus has spread, other countries have also implemented extraordinary measures, with UNESCO saying Wednesday that 13 countries have closed schools, affecting 290.5 million children, while nine others have implemented localised closures.

While temporary school closures during crises are not new, UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay said, "the global scale and speed of the current educational disruption is unparalleled and, if prolonged, could threaten the right to education."

JIJI PRESS/AFP / STR In Japan nearly all schools are closed through March and spring break

Italy on Wednesday ordered schools and universities shut until March 15, ramping up its response as the national death toll rose to 107, the deadliest outbreak outside China.

South Korea -- second to China in terms of infections with cases jumping past 6,000 on Thursday -- has postponed the start of the next term until March 23.

In Japan, nearly all schools are closed after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for classes to be cancelled through March and spring break, slated for late March through early April.

Schools have also shut in Iran, where 92 people have died from the disease.

- Economic threat -

The German health minister said the outbreak was now a "global pandemic" -- a term the World Health Organization has stopped short of using -- meaning the virus is spreading in several regions through local transmission.

AFP / Miguel MEDINA People arrive at a pre-triage medical tent in front of Cremona hospital in Italy, where the virus death toll has risen above 100

Thousands of people were stranded on the Grand Princess off the California coast Wednesday as officials delayed its return to carry out tests on people on board.

A 71-year-old man who had been aboard the same ship during its previous voyage to Mexico died after contracting COVID-19.

The vessel belongs to Princess Cruises, the same company which operated a coronavirus-stricken ship held off Japan last month on which more than 700 people on board tested positive, with six dying from the disease.

Infections are now rising faster abroad than they are in China, where 31 more deaths and 139 new cases were reported Thursday. China's toll now stands at 3,012, with over 80,000 infections.

AFP / NOEL CELIS AFP reporters saw a handful of people trickling back into Wuhan, the city at the centre of the coronavirus epidemic

AFP reporters even saw a handful of people trickling back into Wuhan, the quarantined city at the centre of the epidemic, at the train station this week.

Beijing is now concerned about importing cases, with 20 infections brought from abroad so far -- prompting several cities to require people arriving from hard-hit countries to go into self-quarantine.

Japan announced Thursday that a state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping this spring has been postponed because containing the epidemic was "the biggest challenge" for the two countries.

Stock markets have rumbled over fears of recession, but Asian shares rallied on Thursday after a surge on Wall Street buoyed by global stimulus measures.

AFP / Justin TALLIS Near empty shelves on the toilet paper aisle in a supermarket in London after stockpiling by consumers

The IMF said it was making $50 billion in aid available for low-income and emerging-market countries to fight the epidemic, which it sees as a "serious threat" that would slow global growth to below last year's 2.9 percent.

"At a time of uncertainty... it is better to do more than to do not enough," IMF chief Kristalina Georgieva said.

In the United States, lawmakers reached a deal to provide more than $8 billion to fight the outbreak.

- No kissing -

Governments are scrambling to contain the spread of the virus.

Japan will quarantine all arrivals from China and South Korea for two weeks, the Yomiuri daily reported, without specifying when the measures will take effect.

Saudi Arabia has suspended the year-round Islamic "umrah" pilgrimage, an unprecedented move that raises fresh uncertainty over the annual hajj.

New measures in Italy -- where 11 towns with 50,000 have been under quarantine -- include a month-long nationwide ban on fan attendance at sports events, and advising people to avoid greetings like kissing on the cheek or shaking hands.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said Italy could contain the outbreak for now, but if there is "exponential growth, not just Italy but any other country in the world would not be able to manage the situation".

Photo: Students AFP/File / Sam Yeh