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Europe's virus toll tops 100,000 as protests spread in US

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Paris (AFP)

Coronavirus deaths in hardest-hit Europe surged past 100,000 on Saturday, while across the Atlantic hundreds of protesters egged on by President Donald Trump rallied in a spreading movement against economically crippling lockdown orders.

As the latest grim data emerged, performers from around the world kicked off an hours-long live-streamed concert aimed at supporting health care workers, and cultivating a sense of community in a time of crisis.

The six-hour streamed event includes A-listers ranging from celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma to award-winning teen singer Billie Eilish and even the Rolling Stones -- brought together by advocacy group Global Citizen with the World Health Organization.

Worldwide, at least 2,281,334 people have so far tested positive for the highly contagious virus.

Europe accounts for a total of 100,510 deaths -- nearly two-thirds of the 157,163 fatalities worldwide, according to an AFP tally, while nearly a quarter of deaths have come in the United States.

The United States has the highest caseload of any country and by Saturday had lost some 38,000 people to the virus, according to a tally from Johns Hopkins University.

Progress was marked in some places, with New York State reporting the lowest number of deaths in weeks, which Governor Andrew Cuomo attributed largely to social distancing.

But as Americans and others round the world chafe after weeks under shelter-at-home orders, rising resentment erupted this week.

Demonstrations Saturday at the state capitols of Texas, Maryland and New Hampshire drew hundreds of people, many waving American flags and some carrying arms, demanding quick ends to state-ordered confinement.

The spreading anti-lockdown movement drew encouragement Friday from President Donald Trump, who tweeted that three states should be "liberated" from the stay-home orders.

Trump has called for a rapid return to normality to limit the devastating damage to the US economy -- while largely leaving the final decision on easing lockdowns to state officials.

But Americans, by two-to-one, disagree with the protesters. A new Pew survey found that most were more concerned about ending home confinement too soon rather than too late.

- Lifting lockdowns? -

Mounting evidence suggests that social distancing slowed the pandemic after more than half of humanity -- 4.5 billion people -- were confined to their homes.

Such practices have been enforced in Italy and Spain, still the hardest-hit countries in Europe, with 23,227 and 20,043 fatalities respectively, followed by France with 19,323 deaths. Britain's overall death toll is officially 15,464.

As governments around the world grapple with when and how to ease lockdowns that have crippled the global economy, Spain on Saturday extended its nationwide lockdown to May 9.

Japan, Britain and Mexico have all expanded their movement restrictions.

Yet elsewhere, signs that the outbreak could be easing prompted Switzerland, Denmark and Finland to begin reopening shops and schools this week.

Germany has declared the virus "under control" after 3,400 deaths, and is beginning the delicate task of lifting some restrictions without triggering a secondary outbreak -- with some shops allowed to reopen Monday, and some children returning to school within weeks.

Parts of Italy began emerging from lockdown too, with Venice residents strolling around quiet canals.

Iran also allowed some Tehran businesses to reopen Saturday despite the Middle East's deadliest outbreak.

"How can I stay keep staying home? My family is hungry," said Hamdollah Mahmoudi, 45, a shopworker in Tehran's Grand Bazaar.

- 1,000 deaths in Africa -

Virtually no corner of the world has been left untouched, with deaths in Africa passing 1,000.

Nigeria announced the death of a top aide to President Muhammadu Buhari.

Many countries are testing only the most serious cases and the number of confirmed infections is likely to be only a fraction of the true total.

Meanwhile, many of the world's 260 million Orthodox Christians are preparing to mark Easter without attending church services.

In Zimbabwe, mass rallies and military parades to mark the country's 40th anniversary of independence from British colonial rule were cancelled.

And Buckingham Palace announced that Queen Elizabeth II will not mark her birthday on Tuesday with a traditional gun salute.

- Cover-up claims -

Signs of the global economic carnage wrought by the pandemic are accumulating, with China reporting its first GDP contraction since at least the early 1990s.

China's death toll jumped to 4,632 on Friday after it raised by 50 percent the number of fatalities for the city of Wuhan, where the respiratory disease first emerged.

Trump has accused Beijing -- without giving evidence -- of downplaying the impact of the disease, and leaders in France and Britain have also questioned China's management.

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