Germany calls for unity as US virus toll soars

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Berlin (AFP)

Germany marked the anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe on Friday with a call for global cooperation to beat the coronavirus, as western economies prepared to brave still mounting death tolls with a return to normal business.

As the global epidemic cast a pall over sombre memorial events, Germany's President Frank-Wlter Steinmeier drew a parallel between the war and the new scourge that has already killed nearly 270,000 people around the world.

"For us Germans, 'never again' means 'never again alone'," Steinmeier said at a Berlin ceremony. "If we don't hold Europe together, including during and after this pandemic, then we are not living up to May 8.

"We want more, not less cooperation in the world -- also in the fight against the pandemic."

Far from bringing the world together, the epidemic that has infected 3.8 million and put much of the planet's social and economic life in lockdown has triggered a war of words between China, where the epidemic began, and the United States, where it is at its worst.

US President Donald Trump has dubbed the outbreak the "worst attack we've ever had" and blamed China for failing to stop its spread, suggesting that it may have escaped from a Chinese laboratory.

China rejects the charge, and America's allies are not convinced. According to German news weekly Der Spiegel, citing a leaked internal memo, Germany's defence ministry and spy agency see Trump's claim as a "calculated attempt to distract" from Washington's own failings.

Nevertheless, on Friday China said it would support a review led by the World Health Organization into the global response to the outbreak, albeit only "after the pandemic is over".

- 'Economic collapse' -

In the meantime, while parts of Europe appeared to be over the hump of new infections and deaths, the toll in the United States showed no signs of slowing, and Brazil warned of chaos with the pandemic running out of control.

"Within about 30 days, there may start to be shortages on shelves and production may become disorganised, leading to a system of economic collapse, of social disorder," Brazil's economy minister Paulo Guedes said.

Brazil is Latin America's worst-affected nation, with more than 135,000 infections and 9,100 confirmed deaths, although experts say the true figures are much higher.

But far-right President Jair Bolsonaro opposes stay-at-home measures to slow the spread, saying they are unnecessarily damaging the economy.

Trump is also pushing for lockdowns to be lifted, as he tries to steady the economy ahead of November polls.

"This country can't stay closed and locked down for years," he said Thursday, as the US death toll topped 75,000.

Another 3.2 million people filed unemployment claims in the United States last week, bringing the total who have lost their jobs in the lockdown to 33.5 million.

Germany and France on Thursday reported major slumps in industrial production and Britain said its economic output would plummet by 14 percent this year.

Across Europe, many countries are now easing restrictions, with some shops and schools reopening, Italy allowing Catholics to soon attend mass, and Norway to open up pubs on June 1.

Denmark said Friday it would allow cinemas, museums and zoos to open from June 8, as it also eased restrictions on group gatherings.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to offer a roadmap out of lockdown on Sunday.

The easing has already begun in Germany, while France is due on Monday to start emerging from its lockdown, though Paris will remain restricted.

Russia had originally planned a huge military display to mark its May 9 Victory Day, but now only a flypast will take place over Red Square.

President Vladimir Putin will lay flowers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier memorial, before making a TV address that will not only touch on the war, but is also expected to chart out the country's next steps in battling the virus.

Most of Europe has seen significant drops in new infections, but cases are on the rise in Russia, with another 10,000 reported Thursday.

Moscow's lockdown has been extended until May 31.

- Bootleggers -

In Asia, life was creeping back to normal, with professional football set to kick off in South Korea later Friday.

But goal celebrations, handshakes and even talking are out under stringent new safety guidelines designed to prevent contagion during games, which will be played behind closed doors.

South Korea endured one of the worst early outbreaks of COVID-19, but rapidly got a handle on the disease, with aggressive social distancing measures and widespread testing and tracing.

Hong Kong, which also acted quickly against the outbreak allowed gyms and bars to reopen on Friday, with some drinking spots serving their first customers at 12:01 am.

"I'm so happy. I've not been here for a long time," one customer gushed as he tucked into a much-anticipated drink shortly after midnight.

Drinkers in Australia's Northern Territory were awaiting beer deliveries ahead of the reopening of pubs next Friday.

That was part of a national three-stage plan to get the economy back to a new "COVID-safe" normal by the end of July.

In Pakistan, a continued shortage of alcohol was sparking price gouging.

The annual booze shortage that comes during the holy month of Ramadan is being compounded by a lockdown that has halted the flow of duty-free bottles from incoming travellers.

"I checked with four bootleggers," lamented a 25-year-old student in Islamabad.

"Three had run out and the last one was offering 24 cans for 15,000 rupees ($95)."

- Big Fat Internet Wedding -

Restrictions on meeting were not being allowed to spoil celebrations in India.

Lavish weddings, which can go on for days and involve thousands of guests, have decamped into the virtual world -- allowing one couple to have a big bash that spanned the whole country.

The priest overseeing proceedings was in Raipur, and well-wishers logged on from Delhi, Gurgaon and Bangalore.

"A hundred guests joined in our celebration," said Dang.

"We live-streamed the ceremony on Facebook which was watched by another 16,000 people".

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