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May 11, 2020

Easing lockdowns: Re-emergence of coronavirus feared

Top Story

May 11, 2020

ISLAMABAD: As families across the world marked Mother’s Day in a time of social distancing and isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic, world leaders projected optimism they could loosen lockdowns while controlling a potential second wave of infections, but the dilemma just did not subside as countries easing lockdown are witnessing re-emergence of cases.

More than 282,000 people have now died from the new coronavirus, most of whom were in Europe and the United States, according to international media reports.

In total, 282,796 deaths have been registered throughout the world. The United States is the country that has recorded most deaths at 80,395. It is followed by Britain (31,855), Italy (30,560), Spain (26,621) and France (26,380). Worldwide, over four million people have been reported infected.

The US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin predicted the American economy would rebound in the second half of this year from unemployment rates that rival the Great Depression. Another 3.2 million U.S. workers applied for jobless benefits last week, bringing the total over the last seven weeks to 33.5 million.

“I think you’re going to see a bounce-back from a low standpoint,” said Mnuchin. But the director of the University of Washington institute that created a White House-endorsed coronavirus model said states’ moves to reopen businesses “will translate into more cases and deaths in 10 days from now.” Dr Christopher Murray of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation said states where cases and deaths are going up more than expected include Illinois, Arizona, Florida and California.

Across Europe, many nations were easing lockdowns even as they prepared to clamp down on any new infections. Germany, which managed to push new infections below 1,000 daily before deciding to loosen restrictions, has seen regional spikes in cases linked to slaughterhouses and nursing homes. Health officials say the number of people each confirmed coronavirus patient infects rose above 1 again, reflecting a renewed increase in cases. The number must be below 1 for outbreaks to decline.

German officials expressed concerns about the growing number of large demonstrations, including one in the southwestern city of Stuttgart that drew thousands. Police in Berlin stepped in Saturday after hundreds of people failed to respect social distancing measures at anti-lockdown rallies.

Britain´s coronavirus lockdown will stay in place until at least June 1, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Sunday, as he unveiled cautious plans to lift restrictions imposed seven weeks ago.

"This is not the time simply to end the lockdown this week," he said in a televised address but added that some primary school children could return and shops re-open from June 1. Johnson said some public places could re-open from July 1 but warned air passengers travelling to Britain faced quarantine measures. The government has come under pressure to outline its exit strategy from the lockdown.

France, which has a similar number of infections as Germany but a far higher death toll, is letting some younger students go back to school today (Monday) after almost two months out. Attendance won’t be compulsory right away, allowing parents to decide whether it’s safe or not.

With tourism a major industry in Italy, hotel owners, tour guides, beach resorts and others who depend heavily on the summer season are pressing to know when citizens can travel across the country. In a newspaper interview, Premier Giuseppe Conte promised that the restriction on inter-regional movement would be lifted, but only after authorities better determine how the virus outbreak evolves.

Residents in some Spanish regions will be able to enjoy limited seating at bars, restaurants and other public places today (Monday), but Madrid and Barcelona, the country’s largest cities, will remain shut down. Spain reported 143 new deaths from the virus, the lowest daily increase since March 19.

Russia, in contrast, is still reporting rising infections. Figures on Sunday recorded 11,012 new cases, the highest one-day tally yet, for a total of nearly 210,000 cases and 1,915 reported deaths. Russian officials attribute the sharp rise in part to increased testing, but health experts say Russia’s coronavirus data has been significantly under-reported.

China reported 14 new cases Sunday, its first double-digit rise in 10 days. Among them was the first case for more than a month in the city of Wuhan in central Hubei province where the outbreak was first detected late last year.

Eleven of 12 domestic infections were in the northeastern province of Jilin, prompting authorities to raise the threat level in one of its counties, Shulan, to high risk, just days after downgrading all regions to low risk.

Authorities said the Shulan outbreak originated with a 45-year-old woman who had no recent travel or exposure history but spread it to her husband, three sisters and other relatives. Train services in the county were suspended.

“Epidemic control and prevention is a serious and complicated matter, and local authorities should never be overly optimistic, war-weary or off-guard,” said Jilin Communist Party secretary Bayin Chaolu.

South Korea reported 34 more cases as new infections linked to nightclubs threaten its hard-won gains against the virus. It was the first time that South Korea’s daily infections were above 30 in about a month.

The US has seen 1.35 million infections and over 80,000 deaths – the most in the world by far. The US debate over easing lockdowns has polarised along partisan lines as over 33 million Americans have filed for unemployment and business activity has ground to a halt.

Many families celebrated Mother’s Day weekend from afar, delaying or changing their normal plans. A nursing home in Miami held a Mother’s Day parade on Saturday, with children and grandchildren driving past the windows and waving at loved ones inside. Others grieved for those victims of the virus that has caused particular suffering for the elderly and previously sick.

Officials in France on Saturday said the day´s death toll of 80 was the lowest since early April, while nursing home fatalities also fell sharply as the nation prepared to relax curbs on public movement imposed eight weeks ago.

In Spain, about half the population will be allowed out today (Monday) for limited socialisation, and restaurants will be able to offer some outdoor service as the country begins a phased transition set to last through June.

Fears lingered, however, of a resurgence, and authorities excluded Madrid and Barcelona -- two COVID-19 hotspots -- from the first phase.

Belgium is also easing some restrictions, and in some parts of Germany, bars and restaurants reopened on Saturday with further easing set for today (Monday). Overall, the situation in Europe was still far from normal.

Health experts have cautioned that while the growth of cases may be slowing in some European and Asian countries, other nations -- many of them impoverished -- are only in the first phases of their outbreaks.

In Iran, the Middle East´s virus epicentre, many were taking advantage of loosened restrictions despite worries about a spike in infections. "Life costs money," said Hamed, a 22-year-old out on the streets of the capital Tehran without a mask. "People have to go to work since this virus has been with us for about three months now."

And in neighbouring Pakistan, the world´s fifth most-populous country, the government ended the lockdown on Saturday and locals streamed into markets and shops, despite still-high infection rates.

Tehmina Sattar, shopping with her sister and sons in Rawalpindi, said: "We are happy with this decision, but at the same time I have a fear in my heart that if this disease spreads it could be devastating."

Sweden, whose softer approach to the coronavirus has garnered international attention, admits it has failed to adequately protect the elderly, with around half of COVID-19 deaths occurring among nursing home residents.

Reports have flooded Swedish media in recent weeks of care home staff continuing to work despite a lack of protective gear. Others have refused to work and workers are encouraged to stay home even with mild symptoms, leaving homes short-staffed.

Other personnel have admitted going to work despite exhibiting symptoms of the virus, potentially infecting residents, while some elderly have reportedly been infected while admitted to hospital for other treatments and then sent back to care homes where they unwittingly spread the disease.

Sweden has reported 3,225 deaths from the virus. The country said early on that shielding those 70 and older was its top priority.

Yet 90 percent of those who had died as of April 28 were over the age of 70. Half were nursing home residents, and another quarter were receiving care at home, statistics from the Swedish Board of Health and Welfare show.

"We failed to protect our elderly. That's really serious, and a failure for society as a whole. We have to learn from this, we're not done with this pandemic yet," Health and Social Affairs Minister Lena Hallengren told Swedish Television recently.

Unlike many European countries, Sweden has kept its primary schools open as well as bars and restaurants, while urging people to respect social distancing and hygiene recommendations. It did, however, ban visits to care homes on March 31.