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Coronavirus: Greece shuts schools as WHO warns about local transmission

The Guardian logo The Guardian 5/03/2020 Sam Jones in Madrid, Angela Giuffrida in Rome and Oliver Holmes in Jerusalem

a person standing in front of a building: Photograph: AFP via Getty Images © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: AFP via Getty Images Greece has become the latest country to try to halt the spread of the coronavirus by closing schools and universities and cancelling large public gatherings, as the World Health Organization insisted the virus could still be “pushed back” if governments around the world took the necessary action.

On Thursday, Greece followed Iran and Italy’s lead by shuttering educational institutions and cancelling sports events and other public gatherings in three western regions.

Infections from the virus in Greece have reached 31, but a health ministry official said it expected a significant rise in cases in the coming weeks. Twenty-one new Greek cases were detected among travellers who had recently returned from Israel and Egypt.

Pictures: COVID-19 outbreak around the world

The national public health organisation said the two-day shutdown included “a suspension of all mass gatherings” at theatres, cinemas, museums and sports events in the Peloponnese regions of Achaia and Elis and the island of Zakynthos.

Ancient Olympia, where the flame for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics is scheduled to be lit on 12 March, is situated in Elis. The Greek Olympic committee said it was drastically scaling back accreditations “to those absolutely necessary”, limiting festivities and cancelling all event dinners and galas.

Greece’s precautionary measures came as Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the WHO, said countries should be preparing for sustained community transmission and called for governments to play their part in stopping the spread of the coronavirus within their own borders.

Tedros said: “Our message to all countries is: this is not a one-way street. We can push this virus back. Your actions now will determine the course of the outbreak in your country.”

Iran said it would begin erecting checkpoints to limit travel between major cities and has urged people to reduce their use of paper banknotes as authorities scramble to contain the coronavirus, which has caused at least 107 deaths and infected more than 3,500 people across the country.

The Iranian health minister, Saeed Namaki, announced the drastic new measures during a televised press conference on Thursday, adding that schools and universities would remain closed until Nowruz, the Persian new year, on 20 March.

Namaki told people to stay in their vehicles at petrol stations and allow attendants to fill their tanks to avoid the spread of the virus.

Iran and Italy have the world’s highest death tolls outside China, where the outbreak began at the end of last year. So far, the virus has infected 95,000 people worldwide and killed more than 3,200.

a group of people walking down a street: Iranians queue as the Revolutionary Guards give out disinfection liquid in Tehran. Photograph: Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA © Provided by The Guardian Iranians queue as the Revolutionary Guards give out disinfection liquid in Tehran. Photograph: Abedin Taherkenareh/EPA The Italian government on Wednesday ordered the closure of all schools and universities after the virus spread to all but one of its 20 regions, killing 107 people.

It also confirmed that all major sporting events, including Serie A football, would be played behind closed doors due to the outbreak, until 3 April.

South Africa on Thursday became the latest country to confirm its first case of the coronavirus, which was linked to Italy: a 38-year-old man who had travelled to the country with his wife in a group of 10 people.

The group returned to South Africa on 1 March and the man went to see a GP two days afterwards with symptoms including fever, headache, a sore throat and a cough. A team that will attempt to trace contacts has been sent to KwaZulu-Natal with epidemiologists and doctors.

As more than 3,740 cases were confirmed across the Middle East, the Palestinian health ministry declared a state of medical emergency in the West Bank city of Bethlehem and closed all mosques and churches in the area.

While no cases of coronavirus have been officially confirmed in the Palestinian territories, authorities also cancelled all sports events in the city and shut schools.

The measures came amid suspicions that four Palestinians have caught the coronavirus. A Palestinian official said four positive tests carried out locally were being sent to Israel for verification.

Palestinian authorities said the Nativity church in Bethlehem, built over the spot where Christians believe Jesus was born, was among those places of worship closing indefinitely on Thursday over coronavirus fears.

The Palestinian health ministry said it was preventing all tourists from entering the West Bank but did not specify for how long.

On Thursday, the German airline group Lufthansa cancelled all flights to Israel until 28 March after Israeli authorities barred entry to almost all non-resident arrivals from five European nations, including Germany, over coronavirus fears.

“The Lufthansa group sees itself forced to make this cancellation for economic and operational reasons, as many passengers are no longer entitled to enter the country,” the group said in a statement.

On Wednesday, Israel denied entry to almost all non-residents of the country arriving from France, Germany, Spain, Austria and Switzerland. It also ordered citizens and Israeli residents from the same countries into quarantine.

Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates warned its citizens and foreign residents not to travel, and sent the 215 foreigners it evacuated from Hubei in China to a quarantine centre set up in a humanitarian hub in the capital, Abu Dhabi.

The UAE is home to Emirates, the government-owned airline based at Dubai international airport, the world’s busiest for international travel. Abu Dhabi is also home to Etihad, the country’s national carrier. Both airlines have encouraged staff to take time off as international travel has dropped due to the virus.

The coronavirus outbreak has already had a dramatic effect on Islamic worship in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia banning its citizens and other residents of the kingdom from performing the pilgrimage in Mecca, and Iran cancelling Friday prayers in major cities.

South Korea’s infection toll neared 6,000 on Thursday, while there were a further 31 virus deaths in Hubei province in China, where the outbreak began, and authorities confirmed 139 new cases – a rise on the previous day’s total.

In the US, California declared a state of emergency over its 53 confirmed cases, and a cruise ship linked to the state’s first virus death was being held off the coast of San Francisco.

Associated Press and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report

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