Cruise ships seek safe harbour as anti-virus controls widen

A pedestrian wears a mask to help guard against the new Coronavirus in Shahr-e-Ray, south of Tehran Credit: AP

Cruise ships are looking for safe harbour on four continents amid fears they are spreading the new coronavirus that has infected more than 100,000 people and tightened its grip on day-to-day life around the world.

Iran has declared a “sacred jihad” against the virus, while tensions as a result of the outbreak saw riot police mobilised on the east Mediterranean island of Cyprus.

Italy saw its biggest one-day jump in infections, and the Vatican has decided to livestream the pope’s Sunday blessing to prevent people gathering at St Peter’s Square.

As the outbreak has moved beyond its epicentre in China, cruise ships have increasingly been in the spotlight.

On Saturday, they faced trouble in waters off California, Malaysia, Egypt and Malta as those aboard were tested or confined to cabins, as questions grew about the future of the whole industry.

Around the world, more and more countries are getting ready for a big increase in virus cases. But new trouble struck in China on Saturday, where a hotel holding people who had contact with the virus collapsed, trapping 70 people inside, according to local news reports.

As Argentina announced the first death from the disease in Latin America – a 64-year-old patient from Buenos Aires – Western countries looked to imitate Chinese containment measures by imposing travel controls and shutting down public events.

After the city of Venice cancelled its cherished carnival and governments warned citizens against travel to Italy, the epicentre of Europe’s outbreak, the country is facing a possible recession. Hotel occupancy rates in the lagoon city are down to 1%-2%.

Passenger-packed cruise ships confronted their own virus problems.

Officials in California are deciding where to dock the Grand Princess cruise ship, after 21 people on board tested positive for the virus.

There is evidence the ship now idling off San Francisco was the breeding ground for a deadly cluster of almost 20 cases during an earlier voyage.

Cases in China appear to be dropping, but are increasing rapidly elsewhere) Credit: Mark Schiefelbein/AP

US vice president Mike Pence said: “Those that will need to be quarantined will be quarantined.

“Those who will require medical help will receive it.”

US president Donald Trump said he would have preferred not to let the passengers disembark onto American soil, but would defer to medical experts.

In Egypt, a cruise ship on the Nile with more than 150 people on board is under quarantine in the southern city of Luxor after 12 positive tests.

Also on Saturday, the port of Penang in Malaysia turned away the cruise ship Costa Fortuna because 64 of the 2,000 aboard are from Italy. The ship had already been rejected by Thailand, and is now heading to Singapore.

And in Malta, which reported its first case of the virus Saturday, the MSC Opera ship agreed not to enter the Mediterranean country’s port amid local worries – even though there are no infections suspected on board.

The ship continued on to Messina, Sicily, where passengers were allowed to disembark after officials reviewed medical records.

Transmission of the virus is now going in every direction.

While the global death toll has risen past 3,400, Saturday has seen more people recovering from the virus than were sickened by it. As of Saturday, nearly 90,000 cases have been reported in Asia; more than 8,000 in Europe; some 6,000 in the Middle East; about 400 in North America; about 50 in Latin America and the Caribbean; and fewer than 50 cases so far in Africa.

While many scientists say the world is clearly in the grip of a pandemic – a serious global outbreak – the World Health Organisation (WHO) is not calling it that yet, amid concerns the word might cause more alarm across the world.

Workers wearing protective gear spray disinfectant in the departure terminal at the Rafik Hariri International Airport, in Beirut Credit: Hassan Ammar/AP

The virus is still much less widespread than annual flu epidemics, which cause up to five million severe cases around the world and up to 650,000 deaths annually, according to the WHO.

In Iran, fears over the virus and the government’s waning credibility has become a major challenge to leaders already reeling from American sanctions.

More than 1,000 infections were confirmed overnight, bringing the country’s total to 5,823 cases, including 145 deaths.

South Korea, the hardest-hit country outside China, reported 448 new cases, taking the total to 7,041, with 48 deaths overall.

Italy has seen its biggest daily increase in coronavirus cases since the outbreak broke out in the north of the country on February 21. In its daily update, Italy’s civil protection agency said the number of people with the coronavirus rose by 1,247 in the last 24 hours, taking the total to 5,883. Another 36 people also died as a result of the virus, taking the total to 233.

China reported 99 new cases on Saturday, its first daily increase of less than 100 since January, and 28 new fatalities.

Countries outside Asia stepped up efforts to control the outbreak.

Spain deployed police to enforce a quarantine. Austria confiscated 21,000 disposable masks that a Turkish company smuggled aboard a tour bus, seeking to profit from soaring demand. Turkish police, meanwhile, threatened legal action against social media accounts accused spreading false virus information.

Global markets are enjoying a weekend respite from market panic, but the world economy faces mounting damage. China, the world’s biggest trader, reported Saturday its exports tumbled 17.2% from a year earlier in January and February.