Passengers, left, who just arrived at the airport walk past crew members of South African Airways, right, on their way to the security check at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, Saturday, April 18, 2020. (Photo: AP)
Governments around the world are wrestling with when — and how — to ease the restrictions designed to control the coronavirus pandemic amid rising unemployment and with many of their citizens struggling to make ends meet.
Mandatory lockdowns to stop the spread of the new virus, which has so far infected almost 2.3 million people and for which there is no vaccine, have brought widespread hardship.
In a joint statement Saturday, foreign ministers from 13 countries, including Canada, Brazil, Italy and Germany, called for global cooperation to lessen the economic impact of the pandemic.
“It is vital that we work together to save lives and livelihoods,” they said.
The statement was also backed by Britain, France Indonesia, Mexico, Morocco, Peru, South Korea, Singapore and Turkey. It said the countries were committed to “coordinate on public health, travel, trade, economic and financial measures in order to minimize disruptions and recover stronger.”
Those efforts include maintaining “air, land and marine transportation links” to ensure the continued flow of goods including medical equipment and aid, and the return home of travelers, they said after a virtual meeting late Friday.
In the United States, whose administration did not join in the call, the debate has taken on partisan tones ahead of the fall presidential election. Republican President Donald Trump urged supporters to “liberate” three states led by Democratic governors, tweeting the kind of rhetoric some have used to demand an end to stay-at-home orders that have thrown millions out of work.
Protests against stay-at-home orders — organized by small-government groups and Trump supporters — were planned in several cities throughout the US on Saturday, including at the the Texas Capitol, despite assurances from Republican Gov. Greg Abbott that restrictions would begin easing next week.
There have been tentative signs that measures to curb the outbreak are working in places, with the rate of new infections slowing across Europe in response to the lockdowns there.
France and Spain started dismantling some field hospitals, while in Germany the number of active cases has slowly declined over the past week as people recover.
Spain’s children have been confined to their homes for five weeks, prompting some parents to ask for them to allowed to at least take a daily walk. The government says it is studying how to cautiously roll back lockdown measures, but that it is to soon to let kids out since they are a major source of transmission even if they rarely fall ill from the virus.
Fernando Simón, a leading Spanish health official, said Saturday: “For children to go outside, we need to see a sufficiently small number of new cases to ensure that the epidemic won’t explode again and so that we won’t be putting at risk our patients and our hospitals. … We are close but we need to go day to day.”
Still, most governments and public health officials remain cautious about relaxing the shutdowns, despite the mounting economic toll.
“It’s wrong, sensationally wrong, to communicate that there is a kind of conflict with health and safety on one side and economic resumption,” said Domenico Arcuri, Italy’s extraordinary commissioner for the coronavirus emergency.
Arcuri told reporters Saturday that “without health, the (economic) revival will disappear in the batting of an eyelash.”
The Italian government’s decree, shutting down nonessential industries and businesses, runs through May 3. Health experts are advising that any easing must be gradual in the country that’s seen the most deaths so far in Europe, with nearly 23,000 fatalities and over 172,000 known cases.
Some Asian nations that until recently appeared to have the outbreak under control, including Singapore and Japan, reported a fresh surge in cases Saturday.
Japan’s total case number rose above 10,000 on Saturday. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has voiced concern that people are not observing social distancing and announced a 100,000-yen ($930) cash handout to each resident as an incentive to stay home.
Singapore reported a sharp, one-day spike of 942 infections, the highest in Southeast Asia, amid and upsurge in cases among foreign workers staying in crowded dormitories. That brought the total to 5,992 in the tiny city-state of 6 million.
Iran, hard hit by the virus and international sanctions, allowed some businesses in the capital and nearby towns to re-open Saturday after weeks of lockdown. Gyms, restaurants, shopping malls and Tehran’s grand bazaar will remain closed.
In Africa, one of the world’s poorest regions, the pandemic is only just getting underway. The continent has now recorded more than 1,000 coronavirus deaths, among them the Nigerian president’s chief of staff, and more than 20,000 cases.
France’s lower house of parliament approved an emergency budget overnight that takes into account the government’s 110 billion-euro ($120 billion) plan to save the economy from virus-related collapse. The government has warned that France’s economy, one of the world’s biggest, could shrink 8% this year and see its worst recession since World War II.
South Korea’s health minister, Kim Gang-lip, said Saturday that new guidelines could be issued soon that officials have said would allow people to engage in “certain levels of economic and social activity.”
The East Asian country was among the 13 nations to issue the joint statement on protecting global trade. The declaration also stressed “the importance and critical role of the scientific community in providing guidance to governments.”
While most of those sickened by the virus recover, the outbreak has killed at least 155,000 people worldwide, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally based on figures supplied by government health authorities around the globe.
The number all but certainly underestimates the actual toll. Authorities said that almost everywhere, thousands have died with COVID-19 symptoms — many in nursing homes — without being tested for the virus, and have thus gone uncounted. In Britain, with an official count of about 14,600 dead, the country’s statistics agency said the actual number could be around 15% higher.