Europe to reopen borders but world virus toll mounts


Brussels (AFP)

Brussels set out plans to reopen the EU's internal borders on Thursday, even as the global coronavirus outbreak hit worrying new landmarks in the United States, Latin America and Russia.

The European Commission recommend that the 27 EU members fully reopen their frontiers with each other on June 15 and with the western Balkans from July 1.

Europe's borders with the world beyond will open more gradually after that -- and only to countries where the pandemic is seen as under control.

The United States, which has the world's highest number of deaths and infections, marked a grim new milestone as recorded cases surged past two million Thursday.

Russia meanwhile passed the symbolic milestone of 500,000 confirmed cases, and Iran said 180,000 have been infected there.

Meanwhile, the death toll in Latin America passed 70,000 fatalities on Wednesday, according to an AFP tally of official figures.

Brazil, the region's worst-hit country, accounts for more than half of the total deaths in the region.

In all, the novel coronavirus has killed at least 416,000 people since the outbreak emerged in China last December, according to an AFP tally of official sources.

At least 7.3 million cases of coronavirus have been registered in 196 countries and territories.

- Economic catastrophe -

The epidemic, along with economic and social lockdowns imposed by governments to contain its spread, has also left economic devastation in its wake.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development revealed Thursday that in the first three months of 2020, the G20 major economies shrank by 3.4 percent.

This is the largest decline since records began in 1998, with the steepest decline in China, where the economy shrank by 9.8 percent.

Tension over the coronavirus has also had "an impact" on the implementation of the phase one US-China trade deal, a senior Chinese government adviser said.

The US Department of Labor said another 1.54 million American workers filed for unemployment benefits, bringing the total in the world's biggest economy to 44.2 million since mid-March.

Against this gloomy backdrop, European countries -- where figures suggest the outbreak is past its peak -- are keen to get business moving again, particularly in the tourism sector.

"International travel is key for tourism and business, and for family and friends reconnecting," EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson said.

"While we will all have to remain careful, the time has come to make concrete preparations for lifting restrictions with countries whose health situation is similar to the EU's."

While travel from outside Europe is still restricted, within the bloc many countries -- especially those dependent on tourism -- have begun to relax bans on "non-essential" visits.

In Italy, at the Cavalieri Palace in the resort town of Jesolo on Venice's Adriatic coast, German and Austrian families are once more grabbing the sunbeds.

The hotel's owner Antonio Vigolo said they had begun to arrive as soon as the border reopened on June 3, despite Italy having formerly been at the epicentre of the epidemic.

German tourist Simone Freitag, her sunglasses perched on her head as she looked out to sea, told AFP: "We really feel safe in this hotel. They are doing a very good job. Everybody follows the rules."

- 'Prepared for the worst' -

Ukraine on Thursday reported an "alarming" rise in cases, after a daily record of 689 new infections and outside Europe, in huge countries like India, Iran and Brazil, fear is rife.

In New Delhi, exhausted doctors at the Max Smart Super Speciality Hospital said they may not be able to cope if the easing of a lockdown that once curbed the movement of 1.3 billion sees a surge in cases.

"We don't know when this is going to peak," Dr Deven Juneja told AFP. "All of us are hoping for the best, but we are mentally and physically prepared for the worst."

In Egypt, officials extended a night-time curfew by a further two weeks, and Malaysia decided it was not safe for its citizens to take part in the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.