• AFP-JIJI, Bloomberg, Reuters


Almost 300 million students worldwide were facing weeks at home on Thursday, with Italy the latest country to shut schools due to the deadly new coronavirus and the IMF urging an all-out global offensive against the epidemic.

More than 95,000 people have been infected and over 3,200 have died around the world from the virus, which has now reached some 80 countries and territories.

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 localized 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.”

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

South Korea — the country with the largest number of cases outside China, with nearly 6,000 — has postponed the start of the current term until March 23.

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

Some 120 schools closed in France this week in areas with the highest numbers of infections.

The German health minister has declared the outbreak 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.

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

From Western Europe to East Asia, supermarket shelves have been stripped of supplies in recent weeks, including toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

American businesses are increasingly concerned over access to goods, and the overall economic outlook is more uncertain, the U.S. Federal Reserve said in its Beige Book survey released on Wednesday.

With the U.S. toll rising to 11 on Wednesday, lawmakers in Congress reached a deal to provide more than $8 billion to fight the outbreak.

The virus’s impact has spread beyond supply chains, with stock markets rumbling as warnings from financial bodies mount that countries could be pushed into recession.

The IMF said the epidemic posed a “serious threat” and 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.

The epidemic “is a global problem calling for global response,” she said.

Eurozone ministers agreed after a meeting that they were ready to “use all appropriate policy tools to achieve strong, sustainable growth.”

As the virus continues to spread across the world, governments are scrambling to tighten prevention efforts.

The South Korean government declared a special care zone around Gyeongsan, about 250 km (150 miles) southeast of Seoul, promising extra resources such as face masks and warning people from traveling there. Gyeongsan, which has a population of about 275,000, has seen a spike in new cases, including at a nursing home. Similar zones have been declared around neighboring Daegu and Cheongdo County.

Around 75 percent of all cases in South Korea are in or around Daegu, its fourth-largest city, where the flu-like virus spread rapidly through a religious group.

Italy has seen its outbreak swell despite tough measures, including a quarantine of 11 towns with 50,000 people.

New measures include a monthlong nationwide ban on fan attendance at sports events, as well as advising people to avoid greetings like kissing on the cheek or shaking hands.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conti said the country could tackle the outbreak as long as it remained contained.

“But in case of exponential growth, not just Italy but any other country in the world would not be able to manage the situation,” he said.

In Iran, where 92 people have died from the disease, schools have been shut and major cultural and sporting events suspended.

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

Countries also continue to crack down on international travel.

California declared a state of emergency Wednesday over the coronavirus in the state, which now has 53 confirmed cases.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Thursday his country would ban the arrival of foreign nationals from South Korea and conduct enhanced screenings of travelers from Italy to help contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Morrison said Australia will also extend the travel ban on foreigners arriving from mainland China and Iran.

In Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, 63 passengers and crew members on a Vietnam Airlines flight from Nagoya were placed in quarantine after a Japanese passenger tested positive with the virus when he landed at Chubu Centrair International Airport, according to the website of Vietnam’s government.

Israel has extended its mandatory quarantine measures, already in place for travelers from Italy and some Asian countries.