'Streets are empty. People are afraid': Cities become ghost towns as coronavirus sweeps globe

Rory Sullivan
A view of the empty entrance to the Università Cattolica (Catholic University) in Milan, northern Italy, on 24 February, 2020: EPA/MATTEO BAZZI

Cities around the world have been left virtually deserted as the coronavirus outbreak spreads, with the rising numbers of cases in Italy, South Korea and Iran stoking fears the illness will become a pandemic.

After the virus was first identified in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, in December 2019, previously bustling centres across the country were rapidly transformed into ghost towns.

The phenomenon has now spread to other countries around the world, including towns in Italy and cities in South Korea.

Pictures show largely empty northern Italian towns, which have been placed under quarantine for two weeks, while the fourth-largest city in South Korea, Daegu, is similarly quiet after a large outbreak of the virus there.

Italy, which now has the most infections of any country outside of Asia, has reported that 190 people in its northern regions have the virus.

As a result of the outbreak, Italian authorities ordered a lockdown of 12 towns in the region and police have set up road blocks to ensure that it is respected.

Police wearing face masks could be seen on Monday manning checkpoints on the road into Codogno, southeast of Milan.

Residents in the town had queued up outside a supermarket to buy food, only to be told that it was closed on the orders of the mayor.

Pier Paolo Silveri, Italy’s vice minister for health, appealed to Italians’ “civic sense” in following the quarantine measures which have been implemented.

Italian authorities have cancelled football games and major events such as Venice’s famed Carnival.

As a result of the growing number of cases in Italy, Austria halted rail services across the border with its neighbour.

Stella Kyriakides, EU Health Commissioner, said in Brussels: "These rapid developments over the weekend have shown how quickly this situation can change.”

"We need to take this situation of course very seriously, but we must not give in to panic, and, even more importantly, to disinformation,” she added.

Elsewhere, South Korea reported a seventh death and 231 new cases, bringing the total number of infections in the country to 833.

Daegu, South Korea’s fourth-largest city, has been particularly badly affected, with 115 cases of coronavirus linked to one church in the city.

The city of 2.5 million people is in lockdown after its mayor told people last week to remain at home.

Kim Gang-lip, South Korean vice health minister, said: "In Daegu, the number of new cases that are being confirmed by tests is quite large, and if we fail to effectively stem community transmissions in this area, there would be a large possibility (that the illness) spreads nationwide.”

Health officials intend to test all residents in the city who are showing cold-like symptoms, which could be up to 28,000 people.

Daegu has become even more isolated after Asiana Airlines and Korean Air announced they had suspended flights there until March.

Southeast of Daegu, the streets in the city of Busan, South Korea, are also reportedly empty.

David Neill, who said he worked in the city wrote on Monday: “Real sense of panic here…Streets are empty. People are definitely afraid,” adding that the government was sending out near-constant text messages to let people know about new cases.

Meanwhile, the death toll in Iran, which only reported its first coronavirus cases on Wednesday, has risen to eight.

Most infections were in Qom, a Shi’ite Muslim holy city.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization, said in a news conference in Stockholm: "It is an incredible time. Less than two months ago, the coronavirus was completely unknown to us.

“The past few weeks has demonstrated just how quickly a new virus cans spread around the world and cause widespread fear and disruption," he added

Agencies have contributed to this report

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