Global airline stocks plunged on Monday as coronavirus accelerated its spread around Italy, where the virus has infected 220 and killed seven.
In Europe, EasyJet crashed 15 per cent and Ryanair 12 per cent, while in the US American Airlines dropped 8.5 per cent, Delta 6.3 per cent and United Airlines 3.3 per cent.
The steep falls were exacerbated by conflicting statements issued by the World Health Organisation, which both denied the situation had reached pandemic levels before advising people that “it was time to do everything you would” to prepare for that eventuality.
On 1 February, Australia imposed a travel ban on anyone arriving from, or transiting through, mainland China, unless they had been out of the country for 14 days. It’s currently scheduled to run until 29 February.
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) February 24, 2020
The chaotic scenes for airlines came as the virus began to spread more substantially outside of China.
Globally, there have been nearly 79,000 cases of the disease – since renamed COVID-19 by the World Health Organisation – and nearly 2,500 deaths, with the bulk around the central Hubei province of China.
In Italy, several small towns in the regions of Lombardy and Veneto are in lock-down, with 50,000 residents not able to leave except with special permission.
South Korea confirmed another 231 cases on Monday, bringing its number to 830; Iran reported 61 cases in total with 12 deaths nationwide; while China added there were another 409 new infections.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation seemed to inadvertently cause panic with conflicting statements of the disease’s spread.
Mike Ryan, the head of health emergencies, said, “It is time to do everything you would do in preparing for a pandemic. In declaring something a pandemic, it is too early. We’re still trying to avoid that eventuality.”
Similarly, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, “For the moment we are not witnessing the uncontained global spread of this virus and we are not witnessing large scale severe disease or deaths.
“Does this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely, it has. Are we there yet? From our assessment, not yet.
“The key message that should give all countries hope, courage and confidence is that this virus can be contained, indeed there are many countries that have done exactly that. Using the word pandemic now does not fit the facts but may certainly cause fear.”
A pandemic is defined as when an infectious disease spreads easily from person to person across multiple countries.
In Australia, the federal government said the number of cases among the general population was just 15.
Last week, Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said he would ask staff to take annual leave to alleviate the downturn caused by the coronavirus outbreak.
The news came after the airline announced it would both reduce capacity and cut flights to Asia that will amount to the equivalent of grounding 18 flights.
Qantas said it would reduce overall capacity to Asia by 15 per cent until at least the end of May, cut international capacity by 16 per cent, and cut Jetstar seats to the region by a further 14 per cent.
Flights between Sydney and Shanghai remain suspended, while the popular route between Hong Kong and Sydney will be halved from 14 trips a week to just seven.