Chinese authorities have reported another sharp decrease in the number of infections from the strain of coronavirus known as Covid-19.

Mainland China reported 327 new cases and 44 deaths in the 24 hours to thismorning, according to the country’s National Health Commission. The update brings China’s total number of cases to 78,824 and deaths to 2,788, while more than 3,600 infections have been reported outside China.

The global count of those sickened by the virus hovered around 82,000. As growing parts of Europe and the Middle East saw infections and a first case was found in South America, air routes were halted and border control toughened. But for an illness transmitted so easily, with its tentacles reaching into so many parts of the world, leaders puzzled over how to keep the virus from proliferating seemed willing to try anything to keep their people – and economies – safe.

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for schools across the country to close for weeks, a decision that impacted 12.8 million students. Norinobu Sawada, vice principal of Koizumi primary school, said: ‘The most important thing is to prevent infections, so there aren’t many other options’.

In South Korea, the hardest-hit country outside China, another 256 cases have been reported, raising its total to 2,022.

In Iran, the front line of infections in the Middle East, officials loosened rules barring the import of many foreign-made items to allow in sanitisers, face masks and other necessities, and removed overhead handles on Tehran’s subways to eliminate another source of germs.

Peru put specialists on round-the-clock shifts at its biggest airport, Argentina took the temperature of some new arrivals and El Salvador added bans for travellers from Italy and South Korea.

The Dominican Republic turned back a cruise ship carrying 1,500 people because eight of those aboard showed potential symptoms of the Covid-19 virus.

And in Africa, South Africa’s president ordered the evacuation of citizens from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus outbreak began.

The holy city of Mecca, which able-bodied Muslims are called to visit at least once in their lives, and the Prophet Muhammad’s mosque in Medina were cut off to potentially millions of pilgrims, with Saudi Arabia making the extraordinary decision to stop the spread of the virus.

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With the monarchy offering no firm date for the lifting of the restrictions, it posed the possibility of affecting those planning to make their hajj, a ritual beginning at the end of July this year.

‘We ask God Almighty to spare all humanity from all harm’, the country said in announcing the decision.

Meanwhile virus fears have prompted Asian stock markets to fall after Wall Street endured its biggest one-day drop in nine years.

Tokyo’s benchmark fell by an unusually wide margin of 3.4% and Shanghai, Hong Kong and Seoul all dropped by more than 2%.

On Wall Street, the benchmark S&P 500 index is down 12% from its all-time high a week ago.

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