Nations seek to ease lockdowns as virus deaths pass 200,000

MADRID (AFP) – Spanish children were allowed outside yesterday for the first time in six weeks as countries prepared to ease lockdown measures and reopen economies gutted by the coronavirus despite the worldwide death toll surpassing 200,000.

Governments from Belgium to the United States (US) are gearing up for a partial reopening in an attempt to restore normality for nearly half of humanity forced into some form of confinement due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Coronavirus cases around the world rose to 2.86 million and deaths have doubled since April 10, with well over half of them in Europe, according to an AFP tally.

The daily toll in Western countries appeared to be levelling off and even falling, but fears abounded in many places of a second surge after restrictions on movement are lifted.

Rejecting the advice of top disease experts, the US state of Georgia allowed thousands of businesses to resume operations, from hairdressers to bowling alleys.

Three brothers sit near a beach in Barcelona, Spain. PHOTO: AP

“How long are we supposed to imprison ourselves?” said 30-year-old Mackenzie Scharf, one of many in Georgia embracing the return to something resembling normalcy.

“This is much safer than going grocery shopping,” she told AFP on the beach at Tybee Island, where her five-year-old son flew a kite under a cloudless sky.

The US remains the worst-hit single country with more than 53,000 fatalities. It is followed by Italy with around 26,000, France and Spain with over 22,000 each, and the UK which has passed 20,000 deaths. Spain has had one of the world’s strictest lockdowns since March 14, with healthy adults only allowed to leave home to buy food or medicine or briefly walk a dog, and children not allowed out under any circumstances until now.

But from yesterday minors could walk, run or play for up to an hour a day, accompanied by one parent, in an area no further than a kilometre from their home.

Hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world stayed out of mosques on the second day of Ramadhan and avoided traditional, large family meals to break their day-time fasts under social distancing rules.

And Australians and New Zealanders marked Anzac Day without the normal parades and public ceremonies to commemorate fallen soldiers.

But as life under lockdown drags on, the pressure from broken economies and citizens frustrated by stay-at-home orders has people and officials in many countries pushing to open up.

German police arrested dozens of protesters in Berlin on Saturday for flouting the coronavirus lockdown measures they were demonstrating against.

“‘When will we return to work?’ is a question on many people’s minds these days,” said Jane Fraser, the number two official at banking giant Citigroup, as New York gingerly prepared to get back to business after more than a month of virus shutdown.

France is set to outline a broad lockdown exit plan tomorrow, and from next weekend all Spaniards will be allowed out for exercise and to take walks.

As Italy nears the end of the world’s longest active lockdown, in place since March 9, citizens are awaiting a decision about which restrictions will be lifted. They will probably be allowed to leave their homes freely by early May.

Hard-hit Iran has steadily allowed the restarting of businesses, but health officials on Saturday raised fears of a “fresh outbreak” with another 76 fatalities declared, bringing the country’s official death toll to more than 5,600.

Alireza Zali, a health coordinator for the capital, criticised “hasty reopenings” that could “create new waves of sickness in Tehran”.

While new reported cases appear to have plateaued at about 80,000 a day, the world remains in wait as companies and governments race to develop treatments and, eventually, a vaccine for the virus.