Europe Emerges From Confinement, But Asia Infections Spike

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People wearing face masks as a preventative measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus cross a street in the Causeway Bay shopping district in Hong Kong on May 1, 2020. DALE DE LA REY / AFP.

Swathes of Europe began the long process of re-opening 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 illustrated 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 280,000 people.

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

In Britain, 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.

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 have died in Britain — a figure second only to the United States.

Elsewhere in Europe, however, 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 re-open, causing a surge in the numbers using the Paris metro.

“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 early Monday morning on a crowded train.

Many Spaniards, meanwhile, made plans to meet friends and family at outdoor bars and restaurants, although virus hotspots such as Madrid and Barcelona remain under wraps.

Germany too has set in motion the re-opening of shops, eateries, schools and gyms, but the process was thrown in doubt Sunday by official data indicating the virus appears to be picking up speed again.

Chancellor Angela Merkel only 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.

– Second wave fears –

With governments across the world trying to avoid a second wave, Asian nations that were among the first engulfed by the virus but have since brought it 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.

“We are very much looking forward to the first day of re-opening 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 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.

Cautious re-opening 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.

The vast rail system — which usually carries more than 20 million passengers a day — was halted in late March, leaving millions of rural migrant workers unable to return home after losing their jobs in cities.

– ‘Be vigilant’ –

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.

“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.

“When we knew there was going to be a lockdown, we started straight away talking about what we needed to collect something for the future,” Beatrice Behlen, the museum’s senior curator, told AFP.

“It could be something that gives you comfort — one example mentioned often is maybe your favourite slippers — you’ve been wearing them every day.”

AFP

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