BEIJING/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Global markets took another hammering on Thursday as alarm over the coronavirus intensified, and governments from Ireland to Italy scrambled to contain the impact of a disease that has infected more than 126,000 people worldwide.
Travellers in Europe rushed to board flights to the United States after President Donald Trump imposed sweeping restrictions on travel from the continent, a decision that angered leaders there.
Events from sports matches to weddings were cancelled or suspended, as normal life for millions began to be directly impacted. Trump even suggested that the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo could be delayed by a year.
“Maybe they postpone it for a year... if that’s possible,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “I like that better than I like having empty stadiums all over the place.”
But in China, where the epidemic originated, officials said the disease had peaked and the global spread could be over by June if other nations applied similarly aggressive containment measures as Beijing’s communist government.
Fears of the impact of such restrictions on the movement of people and goods hit global stocks and oil prices hard.
Major European bourses fell by double-digit percentages, with Italian stocks plunging 17% for their worst single-day loss ever, as stimulus efforts from the European Central Bank did little to calm nerves.
Wall Street stocks tumbled 7% at the opening, triggering a 15-minute suspension of trading, amid growing signs of corporate distress in the face of the pandemic.
The market plunge hit airline and leisure stocks particularly hard.
Trump restricted certain travel from Europe to the United States in a televised address about the health crisis on Wednesday, shocking investors and travellers.
On Thursday, he said he had no time to consult European allies before announcing the move, but hoped that the curbs on travel to Europe and China could be lifted very quickly.
Trump’s move sent weary and confused travellers rushing to airports to board the last flights back to the United States.
“It caused a mass panic,” said 20-year-old Anna Grace, a US student at Suffolk University on her first trip to Europe, who rushed to Madrid’s Barajas airport at 5 a.m. to get home.
The outbreak has disrupted industry, travel, entertainment and sports worldwide.
But its progress in the epicentre of China’s Hubei province has slowed markedly amid strict curbs on movement, including the lockdown of its capital Wuhan.
Hubei logged just eight new infections on Wednesday, the first time in the outbreak it has recorded a daily tally in single figures. The rest of mainland China had just seven new cases, six of them imported from abroad.
“The peak of the epidemic has passed for China,” said Mi Feng, a spokesman for the National Health Commission.
The Chinese government’s senior medical adviser, Zhong Nanshan, an epidemiologist renowned for helping combat the SARS outbreak in 2003, said the crisis could be over by mid-year.
“If all countries could get mobilized, it could be over by June,” he said. “But if some countries do not treat the infectiousness and harmfulness seriously, and intervene strongly, it would last longer.”
The coronavirus has infected more than 126,000 people around the world, the vast majority in China, and killed 4,624, according to a Reuters tally.
Already annoyed at what it considered over-draconian travel restrictions by Washington early in the crisis, Beijing smarted again at the latest US criticism of its handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien accused China on Wednesday of initially covering up the Hubei outbreak, saying that cost the world two months in response time.
In fact, retorted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, China’s efforts bought the world time, and “immoral and irresponsible” remarks would not help U.S. epidemic efforts.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian wrote on his Twitter account on Thursday that the U.S. military might have brought the coronavirus to Wuhan and the United States had to be transparent about its own cases.
Countries introduced new measures to slow the spread of the disease, some of them reminiscent of a war footing.
Norway invoked emergency powers to close a wide range of public and private institutions, including schools and restaurants, and halt all sporting events.
Health workers involved in the treatment of patients will be forbidden from leaving the country at least until the end of April, and anyone returning from abroad will be quarantined for two weeks.
Ireland will shut schools, universities and childcare facilities until March 29 and restrict mass gathering to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
In the United States, classes were suspended for two weeks in the greater Seattle area, which accounts for the bulk of at least 38 U.S. fatalities from the disease.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie were in self-isolation after she came down with flu-like symptoms and was tested for the new coronavirus.
Trump said he was not concerned about being exposed to the coronavirus after dining last week with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, whose press aide tested positive.
Oscar-winning American actor Tom Hanks tested positive in Australia, where he is on a film shoot.