Europe steps up reopening, unveils summer holiday plans

Children at the Bois de Boulogne, a forest outside Paris, as France is gradually lifting confinement measures. (AP pic)

BRUSSELS: Europe moved ahead with its emergence from coronavirus lockdown on Wednesday and laid out plans for summer tourism, but the pandemic gathered pace elsewhere and America’s virus pointman warned against reopening the United States too quickly.

Britain followed France, Italy and Spain in easing its lockdown but only in England, where people were given more freedom to leave their homes and return to their jobs if they cannot work remotely.

Austria said its borders with Germany would reopen from mid-June and Berlin said it aimed to end virus checks at its land borders in about a month.

Desperate to save millions of tourism jobs, the European Union set out plans for a phased restart of travel this summer, with EU border controls eventually lifted and measures to minimise the risks of infection, like wearing facemasks on shared transport.

“Today’s guidance can be the chance of a better season for the many Europeans whose livelihood depends on tourism and, of course, for those who would like to travel this summer,” EU Commission executive vice-president Margrethe Vestager told reporters.

Second wave fears 

But with the global death toll from the coronavirus exceeding 292,000, the picture was grim in other parts of the world.

Russia, now the country with the second-highest number of virus cases, recorded more than 10,000 new infections after authorities this week eased restrictions to allow some people back to work.

Brazil registered its highest virus death toll in a single day, with 881 new fatalities bringing the total to 12,400, and the country was emerging as a new global hotspot despite President Jair Bolsonaro dismissing the pandemic as a “little flu”.

Fears were growing of a second wave of infections in China, with the northeastern city of Jilin put in partial lockdown and Wuhan, where the virus first appeared last year, planning to test its entire population after clusters of new cases.

Risk of uncontrollable outbreak

And the United States, which has confirmed more than 1.36 million cases, saw a sharp rise in fatalities, with 1,894 new deaths reported on Tuesday after daily tolls fell below 1,000.

The country’s top infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci issued a stark warning about the dangers of resuming normal life too soon, saying a run of 14 days with falling cases was a vital first step.

“If a community or a state or region doesn’t go by those guidelines and reopens… the consequences could be really serious,” he said Tuesday.

“There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you may not be able to control.”

Fauci said the true number killed by the epidemic in the US is likely greater than the official toll of over 82,000 – the world’s highest.

Facing a re-election campaign later this year, President Donald Trump is pressing for rapid steps to get the US economy moving again, despite warnings from health officials.

Moves to reboot economies 

Countries around the world are grappling with how to reopen businesses after the pandemic forced half of the planet into some form of lockdown and ground the global economy to a near-halt.

US Democrats on Tuesday unveiled a US$3 trillion virus response package, the largest yet, to fund efforts to fight the pandemic and provide emergency payments to millions of American households.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a US$270 billion economic stimulus as the Asian giant’s economy lumbers back to life after a prolonged shutdown.

Its giant railway network also restarted, despite a recent surge in infections.

The country of 1.3 billion imposed a strict lockdown in late March, which Modi’s government has credited with keeping cases to a modest 70,000, with around 2,300 deaths.

Health experts have warned of the potentially devastating consequences as the virus spreads through the developing world, where health care systems are under-funded and isolation regimes are often not possible.

But there were stories of hope amid the gloom.

A 113-year-old woman, believed to be the oldest person living in Spain, was reported to have beaten the coronavirus at a retirement home where several other residents died from the disease.

Maria Branyas became infected in April but fought off the illness during weeks of isolation in her room.