The coronavirus epidemic has broken out of Asia and is now a very real threat to the West

A couple on the subway in Milan on Tuesday. REUTERS/Yara Nardi
  • The coronavirus outbreak is no longer restricted to Asia after a dramatic uptick in cases in Italy this week.
  • Italian authorities are scrambling to contain the outbreak by locking down entire towns and closing fashion and sports events.
  • The measures have totally upended many Europeans’ daily lives, with Italy’s neighbours closely monitoring their borders and other countries enforcing mass quarantines.
  • It is not yet clear if Western countries are prepared to deal with the crisis as severely as China has.
  • But US and British citizens who are quarantined either at home or abroad have complained of unsatisfactory conditions.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The coronavirus has broken out of Asia and is becoming a very real threat to Western countries and their lifestyles.

Italy recorded a massive jump in infections this week, with the number of cases jumping from three on Friday to at least 229 on Tuesday. It is now the worst hit country outside Asia.

In response, the Italian government sealed off at least 12 towns, closed tourist landmarks, cancelled the annual Venice Carnival, and barred people from attending major sports matches, leaving soccer players to compete in empty stadiums.

Giorgio Armani, the fashion house, held its Milan Fashion Week runway show in an empty theatre as a precaution.

Neighbouring countries that maintain open borders with Italy, like France and Austria, are monitoring people coming in from the country for the virus.

Italy coronavirus
Military officers outside the Duomo cathedral in Milan on Monday. REUTERS/Flavio Lo Scalzo

The UK government has told people travelling from Italy’s locked-down regions to self-quarantine. It advises travellers from South Korea, Iran, and China’s Hubei province, where the coronavirus first broke out, to do the same.

A hotel in Tenerife, one of Spain’s Canary Islands that’s popular among European tourists, quarantined its 1,000 guests on Monday evening after an Italian from Lombardy, the centre of Europe’s outbreak, tested positive for the coronavirus.

At least two schools in Northern England – one in Cheshire and the other in Middlesbrough – temporarily closed on Tuesday after students returning from ski trips to Northern Italy – home to multiple tourist resorts – exhibited mild symptoms.

In other words, the coronavirus has totally upended the lifestyle Europeans have taken for granted, even as the virus ravaged China and its neighbours thousands of miles away.

On Tuesday, American health officials also made a stark warning about the coronavirus inevitably spreading on US soil.

“Ultimately we expect we will see community spread in the United States,” Nancy Messonnier, the Centres of Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine expert, told reporters, according to The Washington Post. “It’s not a question of if this will happen but when this will happen, and how many people in this country will have severe illnesses.”

Empty tables sit in St. Mark's square in Venice, Italy, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020.
Empty tables in St. Mark’s Square in Venice on Tuesday. Renata Brito / AP

Life in China – where more than 70,000 people are infected – has already changed dramatically, with neighbouring nations sealing many of their borders with the country and once bustling cities turning into ghost towns.

Many residents have been stuck at home for weeks, and the Chinese economy has been affected so much that President Xi Jinping has personally called on citizens in less-affected regions to get back to work.

The iPhone manufacturer Foxconn is offering its employees bonuses of more than twice their monthly salaries to lure them back to work. Some Chinese cities are also chartering flights and buses to take people back to work, the Financial Times reported.

A recent survey by the Chinese Psychology Society showed that thousands of Chinese citizens had anxiety and depression because of the cascade of bad news and their quarantines at home.

A woman walks on an empty road on January 27, 2020 in Wuhan, China.
A woman on an empty road in Wuhan, China, on January 27. Getty

Whether Western countries are prepared to deal with this crisis has yet to be seen.

The US – which has 53 confirmed cases – has dedicated 15 military bases to house citizens who have been flown out of China. Some of those Americans described being evacuated in harrowing conditions and not being able to eat for hours on end.

British citizens who were on the Diamond Princess cruise ship – which had nearly 700 passengers with coronavirus infections and recorded its fourth death from the virus on Tuesday – have complained of cold food, faulty appliances, and staff shortages while under quarantine at the Arrowe Park hospital in England, The Times of London reported.

H10 hotel coronavirus canaryislands tenerife spain
The Hotel H10 Costa Adeje Palace, marked with an arrow, on the Canary island of Tenerife. Frank Fleischmann/Getty Images/Business Insider

Guests at the H10 Costa Adeje Palace hotel in Tenerife also complained of a lack of warning before the mass quarantine and said they had “no food or anything” amid the lockdown, the UK’s Daily Mirror newspaper reported.

Meanwhile, people of Asian descent in Europe have reported an uptick in racist and xenophobic attacks. Italians of East Asian descent have been accused of “bringing us disease,” Al Jazeera reported.

Americans, Canadians, and Europeans of East Asian descent have also been the target of coronavirus-linked verbal and physical attacks in recent weeks.

Restaurants in the Chinatowns around the world – from London to San Francisco to Manhattan, New York, – have also suffered, despite many of them having no physical links to the virus.

The World Health Organisation on Tuesday called on multiple countries to prepare for the virus as if it were a pandemic, and President Donald Trump on Tuesday asked Congress to authorise $US2.5 billion in funds to stockpile protective equipment and develop vaccines.

These measures suggest world leaders are starting to take the outbreak more seriously, and that may give the world hope that it can stem the virus.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last week: “If we do well, we can avert any serious crisis, but if we squander the opportunity then we will have a serious problem on our hands.”