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France, Italy and Spain are preparing to loosen coronavirus restrictions, with other countries watching closely to see how some of the first and hardest-hit countries in Europe might safely emerge from their crippling lockdowns.
After the US, where the number of infections are heading towards the 1m mark, with more than 53,000 deaths, the three countries have the highest numbers of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the world, according to Johns Hopkins University.
The global death toll from the coronavirus pandemic passed 200,000 on Saturday, with more than 2.9m confirmed cases, rising rapidly in many countries but slowing in others because of lockdowns.
Decisions on how and when to reopen will be vital to how people and businesses can cope with the pandemic, balancing the need for economies to restart with the risks of new outbreaks and further shutdowns.
In Italy, which was the first European country to impose a lockdown in March, and where there have so far been close to 200,000 infections and at least 26,384 deaths, Giuseppe Conte said manufacturing could restart as soon as 4 May.
The Italian prime minister said schools, however, would not reopen until September. Measures would be announced early this week, he told Italian daily La Repubblica.
Tight lockdowns have been seen as a blunt but effective tool to halt infections until a vaccine is developed.
Some countries have imposed less restrictive measures, for example Sweden, where shops, restaurants and junior schools have stayed open. Possibly as a result, Sweden’s death rate from Covid-19 is nearly 200 per million people, compared with 31 per million in neighbouring Finland and 36 per million in Norway.
The country’s chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, has argued that the effectiveness of lockdowns and border closures has not yet been properly analysed and that Sweden’s high infection rate might help it in the future as more people will become immune.
However, Sweden’s deputy prime minister, Isabella Lövin, told the BBC it was not yet fully clear if people who had been infected would be immune. She also said the country had a “big problem” with its main strategy after outbreaks in elderly care homes.
There was debate at the weekend on the topic of immunity after the World Health Organization (WHO) said there was no evidence that people who had recovered were immune. After criticism from scientists, the agency rowed back, clarifying that it expected people to develop some level of protection but that it was not clear how much and how long it would last.
Unlike Sweden, France has imposed a mandatory tight lockdown for weeks. The country’s prime minister, Édouard Philippe, said he would present a national exit strategy to parliament on Tuesday, which would then debate and vote on the recommendations.
The pandemic has killed at least 22,614 people in France, with officials on Saturday reporting 369 new deaths in the previous 24 hours.
Seventeen priorities have been identified for bringing France out of lockdown. These include reopening schools, companies returning to work, getting public transport back to normal, the supply of masks and sanitiser, testing policy and support for elderly people.
In Spain, health authorities have also begun to outline plans for a move towards “a new normality” as the number of overnight coronavirus deaths in the country dropped below 300 for the first time in weeks. As of Sunday, children under 14 were allowed out to exercise for the first time since mid-March, and the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, announced that adults could also be allowed to exercise outside from next weekend.
Speaking on Sunday, Fernando Simón, the head of Spain’s centre for health emergencies, said recent figures showed a “clear descending trend”. The government’s decision to allow some non-essential workers to return to their jobs a fortnight ago had not had any negative impact so far, he said.
Spain has confirmed a total of 207,634 cases and recorded 23,190 deaths, its health ministry reported. The growth rate of new cases stands at 0.8% – down from 3% in recent weeks and 38% when the state of emergency was declared on 14 March.
Several other European countries, including Greece and Belgium, have already announced a tentative easing of restrictions. However, Hong Kong’s top epidemiologist has warned against easing lockdowns in Europe too soon, saying “you need a sledgehammer” to bring down the rate of infections first.
Worldwide, a lack of testing and discrepancies in reporting from country to country make it impossible to fully track where and how the virus is spreading.
In Africa, the crisis appeared to be just beginning. A sudden rise of more than 40% in the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases during the last 10 days across the continent – to 28,000 – and a similar increase in the number of deaths – to 1,300 – has worried specialists.
The WHO has warned of 10 million cases in Africa within three to six months, though experts say that the death toll could be lower if authorities can move swiftly to contain outbreaks of the disease.
“We are at the beginning in Africa,” Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies programme, said last week.
South and Central America, by contrast, are already deep in crisis, with Brazil emerging as a significant epidemic hotspot. Cases of Covid-19 are overwhelming hospitals, morgues and cemeteries, even as President Jair Bolsonaro insists it is a relatively minor disease.
Other developments around the world include:
Russia reported 6,361 new cases of coronavirus on Sunday, pushing its national tally above 80,000.
The daily death toll in Iran, the worst-hit country in the Middle East, has fallen to its lowest level in weeks. Officials said there were 60 deaths from coronavirus in the past 24 hours, down from an average of about 90 over the past 10 days.
State media in Saudi Arabia are reporting that the curfew there will be partially lifted for all regions starting on Sunday, but that a 24-hour curfew will be maintained in Mecca. Certain economic and commercial activities, including retail stores, will reopen during Ramadan, from 29 April to 13 May.
India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, urged the country’s 1.3 billion citizens to strictly comply to a nationwide lockdown as the number of confirmed cases increased steadily despite the month-long curfew.