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June 2, 2020

Europe, Asia, US push ahead with easing lockdowns

Top Story

June 2, 2020

MOSCOW/ROME/LONDON/WASHINGTON/NEW DELHI: Countries across Europe and Asia took bolder steps in easing coronavirus lockdowns, with schools, pubs, parks and pools reopening in places, while in Latin America the outbreak grew more dire with infections passing the one million mark.

The deadly disease has now killed more than 376,000 million people and infected at least 6.3 million since emerging in China late last year. It has ravaged economies and threatens to tip the world toward a recession not seen in decades, while hemming billions of people in across the globe under lockdowns to slow its deadly march.

But from Russia to France, Italy and Britain, countries have started to emerge from months-long lockdowns, cautiously returning to a new post-pandemic version of normal.

Bars were set to serve again in Finland and Norway -- albeit with distancing restrictions or shortened hours -- while some schools in Britain and Greece opened doors again Monday.

But the decision to allow schools to partially reopen in Britain drew scorn from some accusing the government of moving too fast. "COVID-19 spreading too fast to lift lockdown in England," scientific advisor Jeremy Farrar said on Twitter.

Britain has the second highest death toll in the world after the US, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has come under fire for bungling the response to the outbreak early on.

Leaders in Russia too faced backlash for easing restrictions in the capital Moscow, the epicentre of the outbreak that has been under lockdown for months. Shopping malls and parks reopened Monday, despite the still-high number of cases that officials chalked down to large-scale testing -- not a signing of a ballooning outbreak. There was cautious hope among some shopkeepers eager to see business pick up again.

"We opened two hours ago but we already have a few clients. I´m pretty optimistic, I think people will come back little by little," Olga said at her shop selling handbags and jewelry in central Moscow.

Elsewhere in Europe even bolder steps were taken. Greece opened some hotels, schools, pools and tattoo parlours, while in Slovenia a mandatory rule to wear masks was eased as the country declared the end of the outbreak.

Rome´s famed Colosseum opened to visitors -- Italian nationals only -- for the first time since March, drawing sparse crowds.

"We took advantage of the fact that foreign tourists aren´t here yet," said Pierluigi, adding that it was his first visit to the massive amphitheatre.

And in France, parks in Paris opened for the first time in months, ahead of restaurants, cafes and bars being allowed to serve on sidewalks and terraces in the city on Tuesday.

The pandemic has devastated the global economy, which is facing its worst downturn since the Great Depression, and with businesses and citizens growing tired of confinement, there is pressure on many leaders to press on with reopenings -- especially in nations where outbreaks appear to be slowing.

In Brazil, which has more than half a million known infections and the second highest caseload in the world after the US, anti-lockdown President Jair Bolsonaro again defied social distancing recommendations on Sunday.

Wearing no face mask, the far-right leader met a tightly packed group of supporters in the capital Brasilia as the crowd chanted "Myth! Myth! Myth!" -- echoing his dismissal of the virus threat.

Bolsonaro has been a staunch opponent of lockdowns as a tool for containing the coronavirus, saying they are unnecessary and harmful to the economy, but he has faced intense criticism from worried state authorities and angry citizens. Despite his scepticism, the virus rages on in Brazil and other parts of South America, with the situation in Chile, Bolivia and Peru also worsening.

In a grim new landmark, infections in Latin America and the Caribbean surged past one million, according to an AFP tally based on official sources.

In the United States -- the worst-affected nation in the world -- Washington and Los Angeles resumed outdoor dining, while New York City is on track to begin re-opening from June 8.

Some Asian countries have started on a tentative path to recovery, such as Thailand, which relies heavily on tourist spending. The kingdom has now reopened beaches nationwide after two months of lockdown to try to revive tourism.

"I couldn´t resist the temptation," German expatriate Heidi Glemeau told AFP after an early morning dip on a deserted beach in Pattaya. "It´s become a paradise just like it was 30 years ago."

India announced it would begin easing the world´s biggest lockdown in early June, even as it marked another record daily rise in infections.

Neighbouring Bangladesh, meanwhile, lifted its lockdown on Sunday, with millions heading back to work in densely populated cities, even as the country logged record spikes in new deaths and infections.

Similarly, the Philippines -- which has also seen a surge in cases -- eased the lockdown of its capital on Monday to give a boost to its economy.

"The virus is frightening," salesman Himmler Gaston told AFP in Manila. "But it´s either you die from the virus or you die from hunger."

Meanwhile, a claim by a leading Italian doctor that the new coronavirus "no longer exists" in the country sparked a furore Monday, with the government urging caution.

Italy is preparing this week for the next big step in easing a national lockdown imposed three months ago. From Wednesday, foreign tourists will be able to enter again and people will be able to move between regions.

But the government has insisted this is one of the most dangerous phases of a pandemic that has claimed 33,500 lives in the country. It has urged people to abide by social distancing rules and wear masks to prevent the virus from spreading once again.

"In reality, the virus clinically no longer exists in Italy," said Alberto Zangrillo, head of the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan, the capital of the northern Lombardy region, which has been the worst-hit by the pandemic. "The swabs performed over the past 10 days have showed a viral load that is absolutely infinitesimal in quantitative terms compared to those carried out a month or two months ago," he said in an interview on RAI television on Sunday.

The director of the prestigious Spallazani infectious diseases institute in Rome, Giuseppe Ippolito, said there was no scientific proof the virus had mutated or changed in potency.

Meanwhile, amid the surging coronavirus cases and deaths, India became the 7th most-affected country out of the 10 worst-hit nations from COVID-19 with an increase of 8,392 cases over the last 24 hours, taking the nation-wide tally to 1,90,535 to date.

The country saw the spike in cases after the government eased lockdown conditions to allow free movement of people and resume financial activity as the country buckled beneath the weight of the coronavirus.

Britain on Monday reported 111 more coronavirus deaths -- the lowest daily toll since the start of the nationwide lockdown on March 23. Reporting is often lower after a weekend but Health Secretary Matt Hancock told a news conference it was a sign of "significant progress" in tackling the outbreak. Hancock also said there had been 1,570 more positive cases, the lowest number since March 25.

The announcement came as lockdown measures were eased in England, with the youngest primary school pupils going back to school, with open air markets and car showrooms reopening.