Police keep watch near the Spanish Steps at Piazza di Spagna, in Rome, as the city takes cautious steps to end the virus lockdown. -AFP
Restaurants and churches will reopen in Italy on Monday as part of a fresh wave of lockdown easing in Europe, but rising coronavirus death tolls in Brazil, South Africa and other parts of the world showed the worst is still to come in many countries.
The relaxation of curbs in some places comes as governments around the world struggle to repair the vast economic damage unleashed by the pandemic, with Japan the latest to slump into a recession and the Fed warning of a severe US downturn as the global infection count topped 4.7 million.
But the World Health Organization has warned that reopening too quickly without a vaccine could trigger a second devastating wave of infections, and the body will host a virtual global health assembly this week to help chart a course out of the crisis. Once the worst-hit country in the world, Italy on Monday will take its latest step in a cautious, gradual return to normality, allowing businesses and churches to reopen after a two-month lockdown.
"I share the joy of those communities who can finally reunite as liturgical assemblies, a sign of hope for all society," Pope Francis said on Sunday during his live-streamed prayer, with Saint Peter's Basilica also throwing its door open to visitors. The Vatican, an independent enclave in the heart of Rome, has applied the same anti-virus measures as Italy, which imposed strict lockdowns after a dizzying rise in COVID-19 deaths and infections that overwhelmed hospitals.
Businesses including restaurants, bars, cafes, hairdressers, and stores will be allowed to re-open on Monday. Gyms, pools, cinemas and theatres are allowed to open on May 25. Spain is also set to further ease its lockdown measures, while Germany has already taken several steps towards a reopening, including the resumption of its top football league -- but with empty stadiums.
There was other welcome relief for Europeans on the weekend too, with people enjoying beaches in France, Greece and Italy, and Britons going to parks to bask in the sun. Despite the optimism in parts of Europe, the deadly pandemic remains on the march having claimed more than 315,000 lives, with worrying data from South America and Africa offering a reminder of the severity of the crisis.
Deaths in Brazil have risen sharply in recent days, and with more than 241,000 infections reached over the weekend, South America's largest country now has the fourth-highest caseload in the world. But President Jair Bolsonaro has been a staunch opponent of lockdowns, claiming they have unnecessarily hurt the Brazilian economy, but experts and regional leaders have warned that the healthcare infrastructure could collapse.
The far-right leader alongside several ministers greeted hundreds of his supporters in the capital Brasilia on Sunday in defiance of social distancing measures, telling the crowd that the virus restrictions were too much. Latin America and the Caribbean have recorded more than half a million infections, with almost half of them from Brazil, and there is growing alarm about the impact of the virus on the least privileged in the region.
Ecuador reported the first COVID-19 case in one of its indigenous Amazon tribes, deepening the crisis in one of South America's hardest-hit countries.
--- AFP, Paris
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