Countries Take Tough Steps on Virus 02/27 06:03
Saudi Arabia cut travel to Islam's holiest sites, South Korea toughened
penalties for those breaking quarantines and airports across Latin America
looked for signs of sick passengers Thursday as a new virus troubled a
mushrooming swath of the globe.
BANGKOK (AP) -- Saudi Arabia cut travel to Islam's holiest sites, South
Korea toughened penalties for those breaking quarantines and airports across
Latin America looked for signs of sick passengers Thursday as a new virus
troubled a mushrooming swath of the globe.
With the illness pushing its way into a sixth continent and the number of
sick and dead rising, the crisis gave way to political and diplomatic rows,
concern that bordered on panic in some quarters, and a sense that no part of
the world was immune to the disease's spread.
"Viruses don't know borders and they don't stop at them," said Roberto
Speranza, the health minister in Italy, where northern towns were on
army-guarded lockdowns and supermarket shelves were bare.
Schools throughout Japan were being closed for weeks to try to stop new
As growing parts of Europe and the Middle East saw infections and a first
case was found in South America, air routes were halted and border control
toughened. But for an illness transmitted so easily, with its tentacles
reaching into so many parts of the world, leaders puzzled over how to keep the
virus from proliferating seemed willing to try anything to keep their people
--- and economies --- safe.
In South Korea, the hardest-hit country outside China, four Busan markets
known for colorful silks and a dizzying array of other wares were shuttered
while the country's military sent hundreds of its doctors and soldiers to aid
in treatment and quarantines.
In Iran, the front line of Mideast infections, officials loosened rules
barring the import of many foreign-made items to allow in sanitizers, face
masks and other necessities, and removed overhead handles on Tehran's subways
to eliminate another source of germs. Peru put specialists on round-the-clock
shifts at its biggest airport, Argentina took the temperature of some new
arrivals and El Salvador added bans for travelers from Italy and South Korea.
The holy city of Mecca, which able-bodied Muslims are called to visit at
least once in their lives, and the Prophet Muhammad's mosque in Medina were cut
off to potentially millions of pilgrims, with Saudi Arabia making the
extraordinary decision to stop the spread of the virus.
With the monarchy offering no firm date for the lifting of the restrictions,
it posed the possibility of affecting those planning to make their hajj, a
ritual beginning at the end of July this year.
"We ask God Almighty to spare all humanity from all harm," the country said
in announcing the decision.
Disease has been a constant concern surrounding the hajj, with cholera
outbreaks in the 19th century killing tens of thousands making the trip. More
recently, another coronavirus that caused Middle East respiratory syndrome, or
MERS, prompted increased public health measures, but no outbreak resulted.
COVID-19's westward creep --- including a case in California in the United
States that does not appear linked to overseas travel --- had some countries
warning their people to obey measures intended to keep a single case from
blossoming into a cluster that could paralyze a community.
A man originally from Wuhan, the Chinese city at the center of the global
outbreak, who contracted the virus was charged alongside his wife in Singapore
for allegedly lying about their whereabouts as officials tried to stem further
infections. In Colombia, which has yet to report any cases, officials reminded
residents they could be jailed for up to eight years if they violate
containment measures. And in South Korea, the National Assembly passed a law
strengthening the punishment for those violating self-isolation, more than
tripling the fine and adding the possibility of a year in prison.
"It came later than it should have," said Lee Hae-shik, spokesman for the
ruling Democratic Party, calling for further non-partisan cooperation to
address the outbreak.
Countries' efforts to contain the virus opened up diplomatic scuffles. South
Korea fought prohibitions keeping its citizens out of 40 countries, calling
them excessive and unnecessary. China warned Russia to stop discriminatory
measures against its people, including monitoring on public transit. Iran used
the crisis to rail against the U.S., which it accused of "a conspiracy" that
was sowing fear.
The global count of those sickened by the virus hovered around 81,000, with
433 new cases reported Thursday in China and another 505 in South Korea, where
the military called off joint drills planned with American troops.