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WHO Europe calls for 'boldest actions' to fight pandemic

Update: March, 18/2020 - 10:42

COPENHAGEN — The World Health Organisation's regional chief for Europe on Tuesday called for the "boldest actions" to fight the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the continent.

COVID-19 has infected more than 71,000 people and killed over 3,330 across Europe, the majority in hard-hit Italy, Spain and France.

Several countries have imposed stringent travel and movement restrictions and closed bars, restaurants and non-essential shops to slow the spread of the virus.

On Tuesday, WHO's regional office said European nations need to take drastic measures to fight the pandemic.

"Every country, with no exceptions, needs to take their boldest actions to stop or slow down the virus threat," Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, said.

"Thinking that 'this does not concern me,' is not an option," Kluge said.

But speaking to AFP later he said even "draconian measures may not stop, but slow down" the virus -- tempering any expectations the illness can be wiped out altogether.

He said the "good news" was that the region was "alert and on guard," noting that "preparedness, readiness and response measures" had been launched in member states.

He urged countries to assess their own circumstances in order to determine which measures should be emphasised since the outbreak is progressing at a different pace in different countries.

But he said some measures should be universally considered.

"Every country should isolate the sick and quarantine their contacts and consider social distancing," Kluge said.

WHO Europe is comprised of 53 countries covering a broad geographic, cultural and economic footprint, from Russia and Andorra to Germany and Tajikistan.

EU leaders on Tuesday held a videoconference summit to discuss a ban on non-essential travel to the bloc.

Some countries have already sealed borders within the bloc, though the EU has discouraged a blanket move to restrict travel in the Schengen passport-free zone.

Australia tells citizens to come home

In Sydney, Australia urged its citizens on Wednesday not to travel abroad and warned those already overseas to rush home as it imposed unprecedented steps to choke off the spread of the coronavirus epidemic taking off Down Under.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison also ordered a halt to "non-essential" indoor gatherings of more than 100 people, on top of an existing ban on outdoor events of more than 500 that has stunned the sports-mad nation.

Although Morrison called the travel crackdown an "indefinite ban" on foreign trips, the official advice released by the government was couched as a recommendation.

"Regardless of your destination, age or health, our advice is do not travel at this time," the foreign ministry's "Smart Traveller" alert said.

A spokesman for national carrier Qantas said it would continue issuing tickets to Australians wanting to leave the country. "It's advice, it's not a ban," he said.

Morrison called the coronavirus pandemic "a once-in-100-year-type event."

"We haven't seen this sort of thing in Australia since the end of the First World War," he said.

"We are going to keep Australia running, we are going to keep Australia functioning, (but) it won't look like it normally does," he said, girding the country for measures that will last at least six months.

Australia has more than 500 confirmed cases of coronavirus and just five fatalities.

But the number of infections have been escalating daily, with the majority of these new cases being returning travellers or people infected by them.

Australia joined neighbouring New Zealand on Wednesday in urging citizens overseas to return home promptly or risk being stranded in an ominous sign they expect flights to the remote South Pacific nations may shut down entirely.

Both countries had already ordered all travellers arriving from overseas to self-quarantine for two weeks.

In announcing the ban on indoor gatherings of more than 100 people, Morrison excluded public transportation, shopping sites, health facilities and schools from the measure.

He rejected growing calls for the government to close all schools, as has been done in other countries, saying the impact on society and the economy from such a closure would be "severe", costing "tens of thousands of jobs". — AFP

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