But the organisation says it’s not too late for countries to act.
By reversing course and using the charged word “pandemic” it had previously shied away from, the UN health agency appeared to want to shock lethargic countries into pulling out all the stops.
“We have called every day for countries to take urgent and aggressive action. We have rung the alarm bell loud and clear,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in Geneva on Wednesday.
“All countries can still change the course of this pandemic. If countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace and mobilise their people in the response.
“We are deeply concerned by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said up to 70 per cent of the world’s population was likely to be infected in the absence of a cure.
“When the virus is out there, the population has no immunity and no therapy exists, then 60 to 70 per cent of the population will be infected,” she told a news conference in Berlin.
Iran and Italy are the new front lines of the battle against the virus that started in China.
“They’re suffering but I guarantee you other countries will be in that situation soon,” WHO emergencies chief Mike Ryan said.
Italy weighed imposing even tighter restrictions on daily life and announced billions in financial relief on Wednesday to cushion economic shocks from the coronavirus.
It was the country’s latest effort to adjust to the fast-evolving health crisis that silenced the usually bustling heart of the Catholic faith, St Peter’s Square.
Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has added new restrictions to the lockdown imposed to fight the coronavirus after figures showed Italy posting the highest daily increase in deaths of any country since the outbreak began.
In a televised address to the nation on Wednesday, Conte said all shops would be shuttered except supermarkets, food stores and chemists, and companies must close all their departments that are not essential to production.
Services such as hairdressers and beauty parlours will also be closed, along with bars and restaurants that cannot guarantee they can keep a distance of at least one metre between customers.
“We will only be able to see the effects of this great effort in a couple of weeks,” he said, referring to the daily bulletins announcing the number of new cases and deaths.
Denmark will as of Monday close all public schools and kindergartens for a two-week period amid the rapid spread of the coronavirus, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen says.
Public employees who don’t have so-called “critical functions” will also be sent home from work as of Friday, she told reporters late on Wednesday.
The “drastic measures” would not apply for employees in the health sector, nursing homes and police, the government said.
Frederiksen said the government was also preparing emergency legislation to ban all indoor gatherings of more than 100 people, but said this was recommended as of now. Nightclubs and discos were urged to close for a period, she added.
“We shall minimise all activities in society as much as possible,” she said, noting the country had entered a new stage in the infection with 514 diagnosed cases late Wednesday.
In Iran, by far the hardest-hit country in the Middle East, the senior vice president and two other Cabinet ministers were reported to have been diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.
Iran reported another jump in deaths, by 62 to 354 – behind only China and Italy.
Sweden reported its first death from coronavirus and banned public gatherings of more than 500 people to try to stop the spread of the disease.
Sweden has around 460 confirmed cases of the virus, the first of which was identified at the end of January.
“The patient has had COVID-19 as well as an underlying sickness,” the regional health authority said in a statement on Wednesday.
The elderly patient died in intensive care at a hospital in the Stockholm region. The authority said another patient was also being treated in intensive care in the same region.
With the rapid increase in the number of cases in recent days, the government decided to follow a request from the Public Health Agency on Wednesday to ban gatherings of more than 500 people to try to stem the spread.
“The government is also going forward ready to take the decisions required to stop the spread of the disease,” Prime Minister Stefan Lofven told a news conference after a meeting of the government.
The Public Health Agency on Tuesday raised the risk level for local contagion to “very high” from “moderate” and said it was seeing signs of community spread in the Nordic country.
But for a few, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illnesses, including pneumonia.
More than 121,000 people have been infected worldwide and more than 4300 have died.
But the vast majority of people recover. According to the WHO, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.
Britain launched a STG30 billion ($A59 billion) economic stimulus plan as new finance minister Rishi Sunak said the economy faced a “significant impact” from the spread of the virus, even if it was likely to be temporary.
“Up to a fifth of the working-age population could need to be off work at any one time. And business supply chains are being disrupted around the globe,” Sunak said in an annual budget speech to parliament on Wednesday.
He announced a package of measures to help companies facing a cash-flow crunch, including a year-long suspension of a property tax paid by smaller firms.
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