Europe hardens virus controls as infections surge across region
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European governments from The Netherlands to Spain imposed tough new virus controls on Wednesday, closing bars and restaurants and enforcing local lockdowns in a bid to battle a surge in a new infections from the global pandemic.
With the virus still spreading worldwide, with over one million deaths and nearly 40 million cases, regions like Europe that suppressed the first outbreak are again facing tough choices on how to control a new wave without economically destructive national lockdowns.
Bars and restaurants will close across Spain's northeastern Catalonia region for the next 15 days as the country tackles one of the highest rates of infection in the European Union, with nearly 900,000 infections and more than 33,000 deaths.
Similar measures came into force across The Netherlands, including restrictions on alcohol sales and new mask requirements, while Northern Ireland announced a four-week closure of pubs and restaurants.
"We fully appreciate that this will be difficult and worrying news for a lot of people... we do not take this step lightly," First Minister Arlene Foster told lawmakers in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Infection rates "must be turned down now or we will be in a very difficult place very soon indeed," she said.
French President Emmanuel Macron is widely expected to announce tighter virus controls in a primetime television interview later on Wednesday, with local media reporting that could include curfews for Paris and other cities where infection rates are high.
The French capital and other metropolitan areas have already closed down bars and cafes and ordered mask-wearing in public to slow infections.
In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is also under increasing pressure to impose more stringent measures to cut spiralling rates in England, including a two-week "circuit-breaker" lockdown.
Johnson said a new UK-wide lockdown would be a "disaster" but refused to rule it out as the government's science advisory committee endorsed a temporary shutdown.
The Conservative leader may be desperate to avoid a repeat of the outbreak in March that left more than 43,000 dead -- the worst toll from the pandemic in Europe. But like other leaders he is under pressure to protect the country's already battered economy.
At least 1,087,513 people worldwide have died of the coronavirus since it emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan late in 2019, according to an AFP tally using official figures. At least 38.2 million cases have been recorded around the world.
The US has the highest death toll in the world at 215,914, followed by Brazil with 150,998, India 110,586, Mexico 84,420 and Britain 43,018.
- Economic damage -
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also wants tougher measures to fight a surge in coronavirus infections, according to a draft policy paper seen by AFP on Wednesday. Those including more masks and limiting numbers at private events.
New infections in Germany continued to rise Wednesday, pushing past 5,000 cases in 24 hours -- a level not seen since a lockdown imposed on Europe's biggest economy in the spring.
"We're in a situation where I think we can still flatten the exponential growth," Lothar Wieler, head of Germany's disease control agency said. "But for that we all need to make an effort."
Italy this week had already imposed new, tougher rules to control its resurgence, including an end to parties, amateur football matches and snacking at bars at night.
The Czech government said Monday it would close restaurants and bars and ban alcohol in public places after a record spike in Covid-19 infections.
New measures have evoked memories of the devastating lockdowns earlier this year that eroded economies and businesses and pushed millions of people into joblessness as sectors from the travel industry to manufacturing struggled with weeks of closure.
G20 finance ministers and central bankers meet for online talks in an effect to spur global recovery from the coronavirus-triggered recession.
The virtual talks, hosted by current G20 president Saudi Arabia, came a day after the International Monetary Fund warned that global GDP would contract 4.4 percent in 2020 and the damage inflicted by the pandemic would be felt for years.
"The ascent out of this calamity is likely to be long, uneven, and highly uncertain," IMF chief economist Gita Gopinath said.
As Europe imposed new restrictions to try to stall a surging second wave, hopes for vaccines to provide relief suffered a blow with the suspension of two clinical trials in the United States.
US pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly said it had suspended the Phase 3 trial of its antibody treatment over an unspecified incident, the second in less than 24 hours after Johnson & Johnson ran into a similar problem.
Despite the vaccine testing setbacks, which health experts say is normal as testing scales up massively in its later stages, the World Bank approved $12 billion for developing countries to finance the purchase and distribution of vaccines, tests and treatment.
Meanwhile China launched a drive to test all residents of Qingdao after a handful of cases were detected on Sunday.
More than four million samples had been collected and 1.9 million results returned as of Tuesday afternoon, Qingdao authorities said, adding that no new cases had been found beyond already confirmed infections.
Chinese officials intend to test the entire city -- around 9.4 million people -- by Thursday.
© 2020 AFP