The world has seen an alarming spike in coronavirus infections in the past 24 hours, as Australia struggles to contain the spread following revelations that may change the way we greet each other.
The World Health Organisation has reported nine times more COVID-19 cases outside China than inside China over the past day, with epidemics in Korea, Italy, Iran and Japan their greatest concern.
It comes after Australian efforts to reduce the spread of the virus on home soil suffered a blow, with NSW recording the first person-to-person transmissions.
The sister of an infected man who had recently returned from Iran and a health worker – both in Sydney – were confirmed on Monday as having the first locally-acquired infections.
It prompted New South Wales’ Health Minister Brad Hazzard to suggest residents stop shaking hands with others and instead greet people with a “pat on the back”.
These two cases, along with Tasmania’s first positive, brought the nation’s confirmed cases to 33. It follows the death of WA retiree James Kwan who contracted the virus after quarantine on the Diamond Princess cruise shop.
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Meanwhile, China reported 206 cases of COVID-19 on Monday (Australian time) – the lowest since January 22, with just eight cases reported outside Hubei province.
Outside China, there were 8739 new cases of infection in 61 countries, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a news briefing on Tuesday morning (Australian time).
Globally there have been 90,284 infections and 3085 deaths as of early Tuesday morning, with some countries receiving their first cases on Monday.
“We are in uncharted territory – we have never seen before a respiratory pathogen that is capable of community transmission but at the same time which can also be contained with the right measures,” Dr Ghebreyesus said.
There is some good news, however – more than 130 countries have not yet detected any cases of COVID-19.
“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,” Dr Ghebreyesus said.
He urged all people to adhere to the advice by local health authorities and experts.
For residents in NSW, that may mean no shaking of hands as NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard on Monday urged people to instead opt for a pat on the back.
“No hand-shaking,” he said. “It’s very automatic but don’t do it.”
Attorney-General Christian Porter said the government could bar people and large groups from attending public places and authorities would be able to quarantine an entire building.
OECD warns economic growth could halve
In a situation where the coronavirus outbreak intensified, world GDP growth could halve from 2.9 per cent in November to 1.5 per cent as stock markets plunge across the world, triggering fears of a global recession.
That was the warning from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
“The main message from this downside scenario is that it would put many countries into a recession, which is why we are urging measures to be taken in the affected areas as quickly as possible,” OECD chief economist Laurence Boone told the BBC.
His comments came after Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday said he would meet with Reserve Bank heads to discuss the impact on the economy.
“This is a health crisis, not a financial crisis, but it is a health crisis with very significant economic implications,” Mr Morrison told parliament.
The global economy could still recover to 3.3 per cent growth next year if outbreaks were contained and reached a mild level, the OECD predicted.
The Australian market on Monday closed down almost one per cent, which was a vast improvement on the dive of more than three per cent in previous trading.
Australia eyes Italy, Iran and South Korea
Efforts in Australia will now focus on quickly isolating newly-infected people and dissuading or banning Australians from heading to virus hotspots.
Italy, Iran and South Korea are among the countries the government will keep a close eye on. People returning from those countries will need to monitor their health for 14 days after their arrival.
Iran joined mainland China as the two countries from where arrivals will be denied entry for 14 days, except for citizens and permanent residents.
The federal government will also look at strict new powers under biosecurity laws which could be used to detain people with the virus.