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China says COVID-19 has peaked; new restrictions in Italy, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela

By
Darryl Coote & Don Jacobson
A woman wears a mandatory face mask at an empty international shopping mall in Beijing on Tuesday. Chinese officials said Thursday, the coronavirus epidemic has peaked there. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI
A woman wears a mandatory face mask at an empty international shopping mall in Beijing on Tuesday. Chinese officials said Thursday, the coronavirus epidemic has peaked there. Photo by Stephen Shaver/UPI | License Photo

March 12 (UPI) -- Beijing on Thursday declared the coronavirus outbreak has peaked in China, as new cases in the Wuhan epicenter declined to single digits. But cases in Europe and Iran continued to climb, and Italy, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela expanded restrictions on movement.

Chinese National Health Commission spokesman Mi Feng said that while COVID-19 infections remained an epidemic in the country, the peak has passed, as only eight new cases were reported Wednesday in Wuhan and a total of 15 across the country.

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No new cases had been reported in other cities of Hubei province for seven consecutive days, Mi said.

China recorded 11 deaths on Wednesday while 1,318 people were discharged from hospital after recovery. Since the start of the outbreak, confirmed cases reached 80,793 in all, with 3,169 deaths.

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The decline in China came as infections elsewhere, particularly in Europe and Iran, continued to spiral. The World Health Organization urged governments, especially those where case levels have been low so far, to take stronger measures to contain its spread.

The WHO reported Thursday more than 125,000 confirmed cases in 118 countries with nearly 4,300 deaths.

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Europe

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In Europe, tough new lock-down measures began Thursday in Italy, which has seen more than 12,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases -- the most of any nation outside of China. Cafes, bars and restaurants and all shops selling non-essential items were ordered closed under measures announced by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte late Wednesday.

Pharmacies, supermarkets, hardware stores and gas stations in Italy were allowed to remain open.

European Union leaders in Brussels, meanwhile, slammed a decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to bar travel into the United States for 30 days, saying he failed to consult with the 27-member bloc about the restrictions.

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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel criticized Trump's decision, particularly because the U.S. leader didn't seek advice or feedback from the EU.

EU leaders have agreed to set up a $28 billion fund to cushion its economic impact and to work to ensure adequate medical equipment and supplies.

New cases in Spain also continued to escalate as it became Europe's second-worst affected country with 2,277 cases and 55 deaths.

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The regional governments in Catalonia, the Basque Country, Galicia and Murcia joined Madrid on Thursday in closing all schools. Madrid officials, however, said the city would not follow Italy's lead in instituting a broad-based lockdown, despite 1,388 infections and 38 deaths.

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"I want to say that Madrid will not be shut down, at least not on orders from the regional government," regional Premier Isabel Díaz Ayuso said. "And the central government has not relayed any decision that might be interpreted as the closure of Madrid."

Asia

The outbreak continued to worsen in Iran, where health officials said Thursday the country's caseload had surpassed 10,000.

More than 1,000 new cases were confirmed over the previous 24 hours, health ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour told reporters, adding that 429 people had died there since the outbreak started.

He said 3,276 coronavirus patients have recovered and been discharged from hospitals while urging Iranians to stay home and avoid unnecessary travel.

In South Korea, the number of new cases continued to decline. Health officials said 114 new cases were found Wednesday, marking the lowest daily number in two weeks. It brought the nation's total infections to 7,869.

Middle East

Saudi Arabia expanded its flight and travel bans to 12 countries and the European Union on Thursday, hours after Trump's announcement.

In a statement published by the Saudi Press Agency, the country said it was temporarily suspending "the travel of citizens and expatriates and suspended flights" to EU member states and Switzerland, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Djibouti and Somalia.

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South America

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced the suspension of flights from Europe and Columbia to the South American nation on Thursday as part of measures the country is adopting to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

The suspension of flights will be in effect starting Sunday and the government will continue to assess the situation of flights from other regions and that new measures will be announced if necessary.

The president also barred large gatherings and called for public events to be canceled in addition to the closure of public spaces "that promote the conditions of virus transmission."

"I ask all the people, organizations and social movements, maximum understanding and social discipline, in the face of this threat to health," he said via Twitter.

Maduro also declared a state of permanent emergency in order to implement mechanisms in its healthcare system, the ministry said in a separate statement.

"I have decided to declare a state of permanent emergency in the healthcare system to prevent, protect and upgrade all its capacity to address cases that could be eventually detected in the country, he said.

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According to the ministry, Venezuela is also considering closing its borders with Colombia and Brazil if necessary, calling on the other South American nations to put aside their differences with Venezuela and coordinate with its health authorities.

"We are going to insist a thousand times on putting aside our ideological differences, which are trivial in the face of this pandemic, so that we can effectively provide care to the population on the border and manage to avoid the spread of coronavirus from Colombia and Brazil," Maduro said.

Colombia and Brazil are two of the more than 55 countries that back Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido's claim to the Venezuelan presidency after Maduro's 2018 re-election was deemed illegitimate.

The United States has been incrementally tightening pressure on Maduro in order to usher in a democratic transition in the socialist nation but Maduro has remained in power, largely due to the support of Russia and Cuba.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said in a tweet that the foreign ministers of Colombia and Brazil "have not answered our phone calls" concerning a COVID-19 response.

Maduro also demanded the United States on Thursday lift sanctions imposed against Venezuela that bar it from buying medical supplies.

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"We have to pay three times the price of tests, but we have managed to get them in this phase and we are still trying to find enough diagnostic tests for the next phases," he said.

Venezuela, Maduro said, has not yet confirmed a case of COVID-19 after ruling our 30 suspected patients.

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