Closed schools and empty stadiums: How countries are trying to stop coronavirus’s spread

Military drills delayed. Schools closed. Religious pilgrims banned. Professional soccer games played in empty stadiums.

That’s how much of the world, from Saudi Arabia to Japan to the United States, is dealing with the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. As infections and deaths tick upward, governments have taken a range of measures, from mild to drastic, to try to stop the virus’s spread.

Governments are struggling to contend with what increasingly looks like a pandemic. Some of the decisions seem prudent — keeping people away from each other to minimize contagion is smart, after all — but they could still have serious effects.

Japan keeping kids out of school for a month may make life harder for families. Keeping American and South Korean troops from training with one another might make them less ready to fight a (still unlikely) future war with North Korea. Saudi Arabia barring people from entering the country is keeping thousands of Muslims from visiting some of Islam’s holiest sites. And Italians for now can’t watch their favorite soccer teams play live.

All told, coronavirus is already changing the way people live — and it may only be the beginning of the disruptions.

Italy won’t let fans watch professional soccer games — for now

On Wednesday, Italy barred fans from attending five games in the nation’s top league this weekend out of fear that the coronavirus could spread through the crowd. Those games, including some with top teams, will now be played behind closed doors.

Fans wear medical face masks as they await kickoff of a match between SSC Napoli and FC Barcelona at Stadio San Paolo on February 25, 2020, in Naples, Italy.
Michael Steele/Getty Images

It’s a major decision for a nation that loves the game and won the 2006 World Cup. But it was likely inevitable, as Italy is the first European country contending with a major outbreak of the disease. As of now, there are about 530 confirmed cases of infection in Italy — including one Italian soccer player. Even some fashion shows in northern Italy are taking place in empty rooms.

Italy’s Prime Minister Antonio Conte has called for calm in his country during the outbreak. “It’s time to turn down the tone, we need to stop the panic,” he told local newspaper La Repubblica.

Restricting access to games, though, certainly won’t help stem the panic that has led to rising prices for face masks and hand sanitizer. If anything, it may be the most high-profile move by Conte’s government yet.

The US and South Korea cancel joint military training

The US military in South Korea late on Wednesday night announced that its annual training exercise with its counterparts in the country had been postponed until further notice.

“The decision to postpone the combined training was not taken lightly,” the statement read. “The containment efforts for COVID-19 and the safety of the [Korean] and US service members were prioritized in making this decision,” it continued, using the official name for the disease.

That call came hours after the first US soldier tested positive for coronavirus — and that soldier just so happened to be stationed in South Korea. About 25 members of South Korea’s armed forces have also contracted the disease, part of the nearly 1,800 infected in the whole country.

It’s why experts I spoke to agree with the decision. “It makes sense that the military would be cautious. I don’t think the drills are critical enough to risk more soldiers getting sick,” Grace Liu, an expert on the Koreas at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, told me. “They’d already need to prepare to spend a lot of extra money just to screen soldiers traveling to and from the states for the virus.”

“Adding on potential quarantine time for soldiers who test positive — paying for their time, accommodations, food, medicine, and more — builds up pretty quick,” she added.

Even if postponing the exercise was the right decision, it will still likely make North Korea very happy. That country doesn’t like when the US and South Korea practice military operations together, as Pyongyang views the drills as the precursor to an invasion.

That’s why President Donald Trump has had the Pentagon cancel previous drills to keep North Korean leader Kim Jong Un engaged in their anti-nuclear diplomacy.

The postponement, then, will only continue that trend. Some say the dearth of drills makes the US and South Korea less prepared for a fight with the North — giving Kim yet another reason to smile.

Saudi Arabia is temporarily keeping religious pilgrims out

Riyadh made the decision on Wednesday evening to restrict travel to Mecca and Medina, which are home to some of Islam’s holiest sites.

The kingdom opted, among other moves, to temporarily stop travelers from coming into the country — which keeps some from seeing the sites — citing concerns about further spreading the disease. “We ask God Almighty to spare all humanity from all harm,” the Saudi Foreign Ministry said in its statement announcing the decision.

Experts note how surprising this decision really is. “It’s a very big deal and unprecedented in recent decades,” says Bruce Riedel, an expert on Saudi Arabia at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It’s also expensive for the kingdom in lost revenue. It reflects the growing concerns across the region that the virus is out of control.”

It’s also a huge deal for the world’s nearly 2 billion Muslims who pray toward the Kaaba in Mecca five times a day. Visiting and praying at the cube-shaped structure, then, is very important to Muslims, as is visiting the mosque built by the Prophet Mohammed in the nearby city of Medina. But with Saudi Arabia temporarily restricting access, they’re not going to get the chance for the time being.

Riyadh’s decision is fueling some concern that it might cancel entry into Saudi Arabia for the Hajj — the annual pilgrimage to Mecca that every capable Muslim must perform at least once in their lives — that is scheduled to begin in late July.

That’d be drastic but understandable, as a disease spreading has long been a concern during the Hajj. As Al Jazeera notes:

The earliest recorded outbreak came in 632 as pilgrims fought off malaria. A cholera outbreak in 1821 killed an estimated 20,000 pilgrims. Another cholera outbreak in 1865 killed 15,000 pilgrims and then spread worldwide.

Saudi officials surely didn’t want a repeat of these crises while coronavirus continues to infect thousands around the world. But, again, the Hajj still hasn’t been canceled and the kingdom will surely do all it can to allow people in during that time.

What’s more, the second epicenter of the outbreak is nearby in Iran, helping proliferate the virus around the region. Iran has taken some measures like closing schools and theaters, but it hasn’t been enough to stop the spread. Saudi officials surely worry infected people in nearby countries might unwittingly transmit the disease to others as they enter Mecca or elsewhere to pray.

That Riyadh had to take this recent step shows just how seriously it takes this precarious moment. Restricting access to pilgrims is something it’s loath to do, especially since it aims to portray itself as Sunni Islam’s leader. Keeping an eye on when — or if — Saudi officials choose to lift the ban might serve as a bellwether for the disease’s severity in the Middle East.

Japan closes its schools

On Thursday morning, Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo shocked his nation by closing schools for roughly a month in response to the coronavirus.

In his announcement, Abe said he was “putting a priority on children’s health and safety” by temporarily curbing “gatherings of many children and teachers for a long time on a daily basis.”

The decision now makes Japan the second nation — after China, the epicenter of the outbreak — to shutter its schools, though universities and day care seemingly will remain open. Normally, the school year finishes in March and starts again in early April.

The country currently has about 189 cases of infection, leading to three total deaths. That spread has led to questions about Abe’s handling of the crisis, especially as his government considers whether or not to cancel the summer Olympic Games. His highly visible decision, then, may have been in service of doing something to show his people he’s taking the threat seriously.

Some experts are questioning the rationale, mainly because children aren’t overly at risk from the disease, or at least no more so than others. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US notes “there is no evidence that children are more susceptible” to this coronavirus and that “infection among children was relatively uncommon” in other similar coronavirus outbreaks.

There’s no question having children stay at home will disrupt families who may have counted on their kids being in class. “The implications for people and their daily lives is going to be so big that I’m not sure it’s worth it in terms of public health,” Chelsea Szendi Schieder, an economics professor at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, told the New York Times on Thursday.

It’s therefore possible Abe took a precarious, hasty decision just to look decisive at a crucial moment. The next month or so will make clear if it ended up being the right choice anyway.