By Liangping Gao and Andrea Shalal
BEIJING / WASHINGTON, Mar 12 (Reuters) – Thousands of travelers were trying to reschedule their flights and markets plunged on Thursday after United States President Donald Trump imposed harsh restrictions on travel from Europe, hitting punished airlines and raising global alarm about the COVID-19 coronavirus.
However, China, the place of origin of the disease, said its epidemic peaked and the global spread could be completed by June if other nations apply the same aggressive containment measures as the communist government.
Trump had minimized the risks to the United States during the crisis, but with the epidemic increasing from Iran to Italy and Spain, he limited travel from continental Europe for 30 days.
“This is the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to deal with a bizarre virus in modern history,” he said in a prime-time televised address since the Dispatch on Wednesday.
The announcement brought about the collapse of the markets, highlighting the biggest drop in European stocks in almost four years and a 7% drop in oil prices.
Likewise, distressed passengers flocked to airports to board the last flights back to the United States.
“It has caused widespread panic,” said Anna Grace, 20, a US student from the University of Suffolk who was on her first trip to Europe and quickly traveled to Madrid’s Barajas airport at 5 am to try to take a flight home.
The outbreak has caused disruptions in industry, travel, sports and entertainment worldwide. But its progress in the epicenter of the Chinese city of Hubei slowed down markedly thanks to strict restrictions on movement, including the closure of its capital Wuhan.
Hubei recorded just eight new infections on Wednesday, the first time in the outbreak that it had a daily count of less than 10. Beyond Hubei, mainland China recorded just seven new cases, six of them imported from abroad.
“The peak of the epidemic has passed for China,” said Mi Feng, spokesman for the National Health Commission.
Chinese government chief medical adviser Zhong Nanshan, an 83-year-old epidemiologist recognized for his help in fighting the 2003 SARS outbreak, said the crisis could be over by the middle of the year.
“If all countries could mobilize, it could be finished by June,” he said. “But if some countries don’t seriously treat infection and danger, and don’t intervene forcefully, it will last longer.”
The coronavirus has infected more than 126,000 people worldwide, the vast majority in China, and has killed 4,624, according to a Reuters count.
Annoyed even by the travel restrictions imposed by Washington at the beginning of the crisis, considered draconian by China, Beijing reacted angrily to the latest US criticism of its handling of the situation.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is now officially describing the crisis as a pandemic, which means it is spreading rapidly throughout the world.
The 27 nations that make up the European Union criticized the ban announced by Trump.
“The European Union disapproves of the fact that the decision of the United States to introduce a travel ban has been taken unilaterally and without prior consultation,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and the president of the European Commission said in a statement. European Council, Charles Michel.
The collapse of the markets affected especially hard the actions of airlines and leisure companies.
In the United States, classes were suspended for two weeks in the Greater Seattle area, where most of the at least 38 deaths from the disease in the country are concentrated.
American actor Tom Hanks announced on Twitter that he tested positive with his wife in Australia, where he is participating in a filming.
(Additional reporting by Ryan Woo, Stella Qui, Kevin Yao and Gabriel Crossley in Beijing; Alexandra Alper, Steve Holland, Susan Heavey, David Lawder and Richard Cowan in Washington, Marine Strauus in Brussels, William Schomberg in London and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; written by Nick Macfie; edited in Spanish by Carlos Serrano)