Europe lifts virus shutters as Japan ends emergency
Europeans flocked to parks, gyms and pools on Monday as more countries eased coronavirus restrictions, while Japan lifted its state of emergency but urged vigilance to avoid another wave of infections.
In the United States, as the pandemic death toll approached the horrific milestone of 100,000, stir-crazy Americans also headed en masse to beaches and parks for the big Memorial Day weekend.
While many Americans wore masks and followed distancing rules, many did not — and images of packed pools and boardwalks triggered fears of a new flare up of the virus that has infected more than 5.4 million worldwide and killed more than 344,000, according to an AFP tally.
Meanwhile, hopes that anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine could be used as a potential treatment for the virus were quashed as the World Health Organization halted clinical trials “while the safety is reviewed.”
With the global economy battered, governments are scrambling to provide relief to businesses and citizens wearying of mass confinement.
In hard-hit Spain, Madrid and Barcelona cautiously emerged from one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, with parks and cafe terraces open for the first time in more than two months.
Hundreds of people flooded Madrid’s famous Retiro Park to enjoy a stroll or a jog in the sunshine.
“The reopening of Retiro brings me a feeling of serenity, gives me comfort,” said Rosa San Jose, a 50-year-old schoolteacher.
In other parts of Spain, beaches reopened with strict guidelines for social distancing.
The Spanish government also announced that it would scrap quarantine for foreign arrivals from July 1, in the hope of helping the battered tourism sector.
‘Break the isolation’
As gyms and swimming pools reopened in Germany, Iceland, Italy and Spain, slowing infection rates in Greece allowed restaurants to resume business a week ahead of schedule — but only for outdoor service.
“I’m thrilled to break the isolation of recent months and reconnect with friends,” said pensioner Giorgos Karavatsanis.
“The cafe in Greece has a social dimension, it’s where the heart of the district beats.”
But not all the news from Europe was encouraging.
Sweden, which has gained international attention for not enforcing stay-at-home measures, saw its COVID-19 death toll pass 4,000, a much higher figure than its neighbours.
And in Britain, a political scandal raged on as Prime Minister Boris Johnson defied pressure to sack his top aide Dominic Cummings, accused of breaching the government’s own lockdown rules in March and April.
As Johnson separately announced the government will allow non-essential retail stores to reopen June 15, thousands of sun worshippers swarmed a beach — in the southern resort town of Bournemouth — underscoring the difficulty of enforcing social distancing rules in the summer months.
In the US, Americans are watching each other closely as states gingerly lift lockdown measures to varying extents. Video footage of a raucous, elbow-to-elbow pool party in Missouri over the weekend has now been viewed some 16 million times on YouTube.
As of Tuesday evening, the US death toll stood at 98,218, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker, and the number of infections is over 1.66 million. Both are the highest anywhere in the world.
Americans desperate for breathing room and company after two months of lockdown also headed to beaches on both coasts. Crowds packed the boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland. Police on horseback patrolled a bustling shoreline in Venice Beach, California.
In Asia, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ended a nationwide state of emergency after new cases slowed to a crawl.
The move will help the world’s third-largest economy to gradually pick up speed again, but Abe urged citizens to remain cautious.
“If we lower our guard, the infection will spread very rapidly… we need to be vigilant,” he said.
He urged people to adopt a “new lifestyle” and continue to avoid the “three Cs”: closed spaces, crowded places and close contact.
The new epicentre
The pandemic may be under control in many parts of the world, but in Brazil it shows no sign of slowing.
The world’s sixth-largest country has now recorded 22,600 deaths, even as far-right President Jair Bolsonaro continues to play down the threat.
He flouted social distancing rules again on Sunday, attending a rally outside the presidential palace in Brasilia, ditching his face mask, shaking hands and even hoisting a young boy onto his shoulders.
The White House said on Sunday it would bar entry into the US of non-Americans who have been in Brazil in the previous 14 days — despite Bolsonaro being a close ally of President Donald Trump.
Trump himself launched a virulent attack on the media on Monday for criticising him for playing golf twice over the weekend, as the country fast approaches the 100,000 death milestone.
“The Fake and Totally Corrupt News makes it sound like a mortal sin!” tweeted the golf-loving president — as his rival for the presidency Joe Biden emerged from a two-month confinement, in a mask, to lay a Memorial Day wreath.
Trump has also threatened to pull the Republican National Convention out of North Carolina in protest at the state’s slow lifting of virus restrictions.
When and how to exit lockdowns has divided Americans — some seeing the restrictions as an infringement of their liberties.
Despite experts warning against reopening too soon, and recommending some form of confinement measures until a vaccine or treatment is developed, governments are feeling immense pressure to ease lockdowns.
Reporting and photos: AFP