The number of confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide has surged past four million as some of the hardest-hit countries prepare to phase out drastic restrictions despite lingering fears about a second wave of infections.
With the pandemic exacting an economic toll unseen since the Great Depression of the 1930s and pushing millions into unemployment, governments are trying to contain the spread of COVID-19 while scrambling to chart a way out of prolonged lockdowns and relieve pressure on their economies.
But, with the known global death toll exceeding 279,000 and recoveries reaching almost 1.4 million, countries are also eager to avoid second waves of infections that could overwhelm their healthcare systems, with a new cluster of cases in South Korea raising fears about the virus hitting back rapidly.
Still, some European countries have cited signs of progress that they said justified cautious steps towards a sense of normality.
Officials in France on Saturday said the day’s death toll of 80 was the lowest since early April, while nursing home deaths also dropped sharply as the country prepared on Monday to relax weeks-long curbs on public movement.
French health officials have warned “the epidemic remains active and is evolving”, and that physical distancing must be kept up even as restrictions are eased.
In Spain, about half the population will be allowed out on Monday for limited socialisation, and restaurants will be able to offer some outdoor service as the country begins a phased transition set to last through June.
Madrid and Barcelona – two COVID-19 hotspots – have been excluded from the first phase due to fears of a resurgence.
Belgium will also ease some restrictions on Monday, and in some parts of Germany, bars and restaurants reopened on Saturday with further easing set for Monday.
The United Kingdom is reportedly planning to announce on Sunday that all overseas visitors will face a mandatory two-week quarantine, and the European Union warned against opening borders to travellers from outside the bloc.
Across Europe, the situation was still far from normal, with commemorations marking 75 years since Nazi Germany’s surrender cancelled or largely scaled down.
And Poland’s election on Sunday will be one for the history books as polling stations remain closed and turnout will clock in at zero due to a political crisis set off by the pandemic – the presidential ballot is formally neither postponed nor cancelled because the government and opposition were unable to agree on a constitutional and safe solution.
In Asia, South Korea’s capital Seoul shut all bars and clubs on Saturday after a burst of cases were tracked to one of the city’s busiest nightlife districts.
Even as the country eased virus restrictions, officials warned against carelessness after the new cluster of infections, highlighting the challenge of containing the spread of the highly infectious respiratory disease while pursuing an economic revival.
Global economic figures are pointing to the most acute downturn in nearly a century with businesses forced to shut and supply lines badly disrupted, and pressure is growing on leaders around the world to find a way out.
In the United States, the country with the world’s highest death toll, President Donald Trump faced sharp criticism from his predecessor Barack Obama, who said on a leaked tape that his successor’s handling of the crisis was an “absolute chaotic disaster”.
Facing re-election in November, Trump has insisted that next year would be “phenomenal” for the US economy, urging reopening in a country where the virus continues to claim well more than 1,000 lives daily.
The US lost an unprecedented 20.5 million jobs in April, driving the unemployment rate to 14.7 percent – the highest level since the Great Depression.
Health experts have cautioned that while the growth of cases may be slowing in some European and Asian countries, other nations – many of them impoverished – are only in the first phases of their outbreaks.
In Iran, one of the hardest-hit countries in the Middle East, many were taking advantage of loosened restrictions despite worries about a spike in infections.
And in Pakistan, the world’s fifth most-populous country, the government ended the lockdown on Saturday and locals streamed into markets and shops, despite still-high infection rates.
Also on Saturday, Mali’s government said it had lifted its nationwide curfew designed to stem the spread of the coronavirus and made mask-wearing compulsory in public places.
In a televised speech, Prime Minister Boubou Cisse said the “evil is raging among us”, warning that the virus was now present “in practically all our administrative regions” and that more testing was needed.
The call for more tests was echoed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Denis Mukwege, who pleaded for coronavirus testing to be made available in the country’s east, where he is coordinating the response to the pandemic.
“We solemnly request an emergency supply of these tests before the curve of the epidemic becomes exponential,” Mukwege told reporters on Saturday.