BANGKOK (AP) – A lack of new hotspots in the coronavirus pandemic appeared to be holding recently, fuelling a debate about how soon authorities could start scaling back social restrictions and reopen economies.
While concerns remained over the virus’ fresh spread in places like Japan and Indonesia, nowhere was currently undergoing the explosion in hospitalisations and deaths that were seen earlier in China, southern Europe and parts of the United States (US).
Even in New York – where deaths passed 10,000 on Monday – Governor Andrew Cuomo declared the “worst is over if we can continue to be smart”.
“I believe we can now start on the path to normalcy,” he said.
The number of people hospitalised with the virus in New York has almost flattened at just under 19,000, once discharges and deaths are taken into account. That’s a relief after weeks of increases raised fears New York City hospitals would be overwhelmed.
Dr Sebastian Johnston, a professor of respiratory medicine at Imperial College London, said it appeared that COVID-19 illnesses had peaked in much of Europe, including France, Spain, Germany, Italy and Britain.
While the death toll in Britain climbed past 11,300, the 717 deaths reported were the third daily decline in row, though it was unclear if that might in part be because of delays in reporting over the Easter holiday.
With social distancing and lockdowns in place across a large portion of the world, grim projections that the virus would spread with equal ferocity to other corners the world have yet to materialise. But questions remain about what could happen once those measures are eased.
Health authorities have warned that easing up too soon could undo the hard-earned progress and lead to new outbreaks.
Still, there were signs countries were looking in that direction.
Spain permitted some workers to return to their jobs, while a hard-hit region of Italy loosened its lockdown restrictions.
Governors on both coasts of the US announced that they would join forces to come up with a coordinated reopening at some point, setting the stage for potential conflict with US President Donald Trump, who asserted that he is the ultimate decision-maker for determining how and when to reopen.
Trump continued those assertions during an afternoon White House briefing, pushing back against reporters’ questions about whether the president or governors have the authority to ease the restrictions. He said “the federal government has absolute power” in that decision-making process if it chooses to exercise it.
The Constitution largely gives states the authority to regulate their own affairs.
California Governor Gavin Newsom said he would announce a detailed plan Tuesday for lifting virus restrictions.
He cautioned people can expect an “incremental release of the stay-at-home orders” that will use “science to guide our decision-making and not political pressure”.
In some European countries, officials pointed to positive signs as they began prepping for the reopening of largely shuttered economies and industries.
Italy’s day-to-day increase in infections was one of the lowest in weeks, bolstering a generally downward trend. Slightly eased restrictions were about to take effect in some sectors of the country, such as allowing stores selling necessities for newborns to reopen.
In hard-hit Spain, workers were permitted to return to some factory and construction jobs as the government looked to restart manufacturing. Retail stores and services were still required to stay closed, and the government required office workers to keep working from home.
Some health experts and politicians argue that it’s premature to ease the lockdown in a nation that has suffered more than 17,750 deaths and reported more than 170,000 infections, second only to the United States’ more than 582,000 cases.
Health Minister Salvador Illa said he would proceed with “the utmost caution and prudence… and always based on scientific evidence”.
Johnston, the Imperial College professor, said he worried the virus might take off across Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia. He also expressed concern about Russia.
The infection rate remains relatively low in areas of the developing world that have poor or non-existent health care infrastructure. The rapid spread of the coronavirus beyond cities to more rural areas often depends on travel and social connections, said World Health Organization (WHO) Emergencies Chief Dr Mike Ryan.
But he noted that rural areas often have less sophisticated health surveillance systems to pick up potential disease clusters, prompting the question, “Is it that it’s not there, or is it that we’re not detecting the disease when it is there?”
Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous nation, has seen a worrying increase in cases in the past few weeks even though it has conducted fewer than 30,000 tests among its 270 million people.
It has confirmed 4,557 cases with 399 deaths, the highest number of recorded fatalities in Asia after China. After weeks of delays, the capital, Jakarta, finally put in place legally enforceable social distancing regulations last Friday.
President Joko Widodo, meanwhile, pledged to be more transparent after admitting he deliberately withheld some information on COVID-19 cases to prevent panic.
Japan, with the world’s oldest population, has also seen a worrying growth in cases since the decision was made to postpone this summer’s Tokyo Olympics until next year. It reported another 390 new cases on Tuesday.
And tiny Singapore, which had been lauded for its early success in containing the virus, reported its biggest daily jump in new coronavirus infections on Tuesday, most of them linked to foreign workers living in crowded dormitories.
More than 200,000 migrant workers live in 43 registered dormitories that house up to 20 men per room, with shared toilets, cooking and other facilities.
More than 1.9 million infections have been reported and over 119,000 people have died worldwide, according to count kept by Johns Hopkins University. The figures certainly understate the true size and toll of the pandemic, due to limited testing, uneven counting of the dead and some governments’ desire to play down the extent of outbreaks.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough.
But for others, especially older people and the infirm, it can cause severe symptoms and lead to death.