Coronavirus | Europe emerges from curbs, but Asia fears a second wave

Back on track: Passengers arriving at the Saint-Lazare Railway Station in Paris on Monday, on the first day since the country’s lockdown measures in place for 55 days started to ease.   | Photo Credit: BERTRAND GUAY

Swathes of Europe began the long process of reopening from coronavirus lockdowns on Monday, but the first new infections in weeks at China’s ground zero offered a sobering reminder of the dangers of a second wave of cases.

The mixed fortunes illustrate the high-wire act governments face across the globe as they try to get economies moving while keeping in check a pandemic that has now killed more than 2,80,000 people and infected over four million.

As France and Spain basked in a relaxation of restrictions and Britain plotted a path to normality, the Chinese city of Wuhan where the pandemic was born reported a second day of new cases after a month without a sign of the virus.

And neighbouring South Korea announced its highest number of infections for more than a month driven by a cluster in a Seoul nightlife district.

With millions out of work and economies shattered, governments are desperate to hit the accelerator, but most are choosing a gradual approach as fears about a resurgence of the virus linger.

Declining death rates

In parts of Europe, officials have been emboldened by declining death rates, with France’s toll dropping to 70 on Sunday — its lowest since early April — and Spain’s daily fatalities falling below 200. The French were able to walk outside without filling in a permit for the first time in nearly eight weeks on Monday, while teachers began returning to primary schools and some shops were set to reopen, causing a surge in the numbers using the Paris metro.

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“If it’s like this at 6:00 am, imagine how it’s going to be in two hours — this is going to be impossible,” said one rider named Brigitte on a crowded train early Monday.

Many Spaniards revelled in being able to visit outdoor terraces and cafes again after months under one of the world’s toughest lockdowns, although virus hotspots such as Madrid and Barcelona remain under wraps.

“I really missed this, now you value these little pleasures,” said Jesus Vazquez, a 51-year-old builder, as he enjoyed a breakfast sandwich and beer in the sunshine outside a bar in the city of Tarragona.

Shopping boulevards were once again populated with pedestrians in Greece, while other parts of Europe from the Netherlands to Switzerland and Croatia youngsters headed back to the classroom after weeks at home.

“They were jumping with joy when they saw their friends again, they were very happy,” 43-year-old Manon told AFP as she dropped off her three children at school in The Hague.

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Germany too has set in motion the reopening of shops, eateries, schools and gyms, but the process was thrown in doubt on Sunday by official data indicating the virus appears to be picking up speed again. Chancellor Angela Merkel had days ago declared the country could gradually return to normal, but the figures showed the reproduction rate of the virus had exceeded the critical figure of 1.0, meaning one person infects on average more than one other.

As recently as Wednesday, the number had stood at 0.65.

Conditional plan

In Britain, meanwhile, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was too soon for the country to lift its lockdown but he offered hope by unveiling a “conditional plan” to ease curbs in England during the months ahead.

Mr. Johnson said the restrictions had brought “a colossal cost to our way of life” but it would be “madness” to squander the nation’s progress by moving too early. Almost seven weeks after a nationwide stay-at-home order was put in place, more than 31,800 people have died in Britain — a figure second only to the U.S.

With governments across the world trying to avoid a second wave, Asian nations that were among the first engulfed by the virus but have brought the virus to heel are being keenly watched. Much of China has begun to get back to a form of normality, and on Monday Shanghai Disneyland threw open its gates following a three-month shutdown.

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“We are very much looking forward to the first day of reopening and wondering what's the difference inside today compared to before,” said one eager visitor named Kitty.

But enthusiasm in China was tempered by news on Sunday that one person had tested positive for the virus in Wuhan. There were five more cases on Monday.

Local health officials said the new infections were all from the same residential compound in the city and were mostly older people.

South Korean officials ordered nightclubs and bars closed after a fresh burst of transmission linked to an entertainment district in the capital.

At first it was thought to have been triggered by a 29-year-old man who tested positive after spending an evening at five clubs and bars in the Itaewon district in early May.

But officials said there appeared to be multiple origins for the cluster, with Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun adding they are struggling to trace “thousands of people” who visited the area.

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The new cluster prompted officials to push back the reopening of schools this week.

Cautious reopening nevertheless continues around Asia, with one of the world's largest train networks set to gradually restart operations from Tuesday as India eases its lockdown despite the nation reporting its biggest single-day jump in cases.

New Zealand, meanwhile, will phase out its lockdown over the next 10 days, although some restrictions will remain.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern warned “none of us can assume COVID is not with us”, but said the country had only 90 active cases after a seven-week lockdown.

“Your efforts, New Zealand, have got us to this place ahead of most of the world and without the carnage that COVID has inflicted in many other places,” she said in a televised address.

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“But there are risks ahead, so please be vigilant.”

Extended periods at home have given some people a chance to gather testimony on life in confinement, with the Museum of London launching an appeal for items that reflect the experience.

“It could be something that gives you comfort — one example mentioned often is maybe your favourite slippers — you've been wearing them every day,” Beatrice Behlen, the museum's senior curator, told AFP.

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Printable version | Jun 24, 2021 6:10:47 PM |

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