Europeans savour lockdown easing, but elsewhere virus cases surge

Women react as they stand in the sea during the re-opening of some Mediterranean beaches along the French Riviera city of Nice, southern France, on May 16, 2020, as France eases lockdown measures taken to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

© Valery Hache, AFP
Women react as they stand in the sea during the re-opening of some Mediterranean beaches along the French Riviera city of Nice, southern France, on May 16, 2020, as France eases lockdown measures taken to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. © Valery Hache, AFP © Valery Hache, AFP

German football champions Bayern Munich played and won their first match in more than two months on Sunday as Spain and Britain recorded their lowest daily coronavirus death tolls since March, but the pandemic continued its devastation elsewhere.


With a worldwide virus death toll above 314,000 and the global economy reeling from the vast damage caused by lockdowns, numerous European countries are lifting restrictions to provide much-needed respite for their beleaguered and impatient populations.

But the virus is still surging in Brazil, which saw its number of deaths soar past 15,000 with more than 230,000 infections, making it the country with the fourth-highest number of cases.

Germany's Bundesliga at the weekend became the first top football league to return after lockdown, bringing relief not only to European football fans but to a sports-starved world. Defending champions Bayern Munich defeated Union Berlin 2-0 inside an empty stadium in the capital on Sunday evening.


Already attracting a record TV audience, the restart is under intense scrutiny as a test case. Top sports competitions are trying to find ways to resume play without increasing the risk of spreading the virus, which has infected more than 4.6 million people globally.

However, there were calls for the Bundesliga to tighten its hygiene protocol after several players celebrated goals by hugging -- two even kissing on the cheek -- during Saturday's games.

Latin America cases surge

A day before Spain is set to further ease its lockdown measures, the country recorded 87 new virus-related deaths -- the first time the number has fallen below 100 in two months.

Britain also registered its lowest daily increase since late March, with 170 fatalities. However, that number did not include Northern Ireland due to a technical issue -- and these figures are often lower on weekends due to lags in reporting.

Despite the optimism in some European countries, rising infection and fatality numbers in other parts of the world offered grim reminders of the threat COVID-19 poses.

The number of cases in Latin America passed half a million as Chile locked down its capital Santiago following a sharp rise in infections.

Despite Brazil's surging numbers, President Jair Bolsonaro is keen to end lockdowns, which he claims have unnecessarily damaged the economy.

"Unemployment, hunger and misery will be the future of those who support the tyranny of total isolation," he tweeted.

India reported its biggest single-day jump in infections, prompting an extension of a nationwide lockdown for its 1.3 billion people until the end of May.

Russia, which has the world's second highest number of infections, claimed Sunday that steadying case rates showed the growth of the virus had been halted, after reporting its deadliest day yet on Saturday.

In Algeria, the death from COVID-19 of an eight-month pregnant doctor sparked an uproar after her request for early maternity leave was rejected.

Madagascar and Nepal reported their first coronavirus-linked deaths, while Qatar began enforcing the world's toughest penalties of up to three years' prison for failing to wear a mask in public. The Gulf emirate has one of the world's highest infection rates.

A team of Hong Kong experts said Sunday that research on hamsters found that mask use could reduce non-contact transmission of the virus by more than 60 percent.

Europe relaxes

The weekend brought welcome relief for people in European countries which relaxed restrictions earlier in the week, with leisure-seekers enjoying reopened beaches in France, Greece and Italy, and Britons basking in the sun in parks.

Catholics attended mass in eastern France on Sunday for the first time in two months, but the faithful were inside their cars in a car park, taking communion from mask-wearing priests.

"Clean hands give the communion, clean hands receive it," said Bishop Francois Touvet in Chalons-en-Champagne. "An exceptional measure for an exceptional situation."

Italy, once the world's worst-hit country, will allow EU tourists to visit from June 3, and has scrapped quarantine requirements.


Restaurants, cafes and most other commercial activities will reopen there on Monday, but authorities have warned of the danger of social gatherings.

Eighteen of 50 new cases in the Lazio region, which includes Rome, were traced to people attending a single funeral, a health official said.

But with the threat of a second wave of infections, authorities in many countries have asked people not to throng public spaces as they are made accessible again.

Tested on live TV

In China, where the virus emerged late last year but has largely been brought under control, the government's senior medical advisor warned of just such a second wave due to a lack of widespread immunity.

"We are facing (a) big challenge; it's not better than the foreign countries, I think, at the moment," Zhong Nanshan told CNN.

But with people growing weary of confinement and suffering immense economic pain, governments face growing pressure to ease lockdowns.

President Donald Trump has been keen to restart the world's biggest economy despite the US recording a world-worst 89,000 deaths and nearly 1.48 million cases.

A top Trump economic advisor, Peter Navarro, took a swipe Sunday at the long-respected Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, saying that by initially providing a flawed test for COVID-19, the federal agency "let the country down."

And Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell offered a somber outlook for the US economy, saying it would improve steadily late this year but might not fully recover until "the end of next year."

But New York, long a virus hotspot, has seen steady improvement, and Governor Andrew Cuomo on Sunday took a virus test on live television in a bid to encourage more widespread testing and pave the way for a safer reopening of the populous state.


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