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15.05.2020 Africa

Virus lockdowns ease as vaccine hunt heats up

By Jastinder KHERA with AFP bureaus
US President Donald Trump, flanked by senior helath officials, launches the high-powered
LISTEN MAY 15, 2020
US President Donald Trump, flanked by senior helath officials, launches the high-powered "Operation Warp Speed" initiative which he says could deliver a vaccine by the end of the year. By MANDEL NGAN (AFP)

European countries further eased coronavirus restrictions on Friday to stem the economic damage from lockdowns, despite fears of a second wave of a disease with no cure that continues to ravage most of the globe.

US President Donald Trump held out hope of a vaccine by year's end but much of the world is instead learning to live as best it can under the shadow of the disease that has killed more than 300,000 people globally.

While Europe unlocks after reducing the number of new infections, cases continue to soar in many other parts of the world while the economic and political fallout grows apace.

The hunt for a vaccine for a disease that the World Health Organization says may never disappear has also threatened to become a source of tension between the globe's haves and have nots, with trials underway in various countries.

"We are looking to get it by the end of the year if we can, maybe before," Trump told reporters at the White House as he discussed America's "Operation Warp Speed" effort in the global race for a vaccine.

Beaches reopening

Borders and beaches were reopening around Europe after two traumatic months in which life had ground to a halt.

Slovenia on Friday became the first European country to open its borders, declaring an end to its coronavirus epidemic, despite new infections still being reported.

Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia were creating their own "Baltic bubble", allowing free movement among the three countries, while Austria and Germany were expected to open their shared border.

France called for self-restraint as the country prepared for its first weekend since its lockdown was eased on Monday, warning that police would break up any large gatherings.

But with the European summer fast approaching, beaches are starting to reopen as the key tourism industry tries to salvage something from the wreckage.

French officials have reopened large stretches of beaches along the Atlantic coast but only strolling and swimming will be allowed -- no sunbathing, and no crowds.

Parasols and sunloungers are also starting to appear on Italy's coastlines, although reopening is slow and depends on local authorities.

"It moves me to see these sunshades," said Simone Battistoni, whose family has been running the Bagno Milano beach concession in Cesenatico on Italy's east coast since 1927.

Football restarts

Germany was ready to relaunch its football championship on Saturday, although in front of empty stadiums and under draconian health measures.

Russia pushed ahead with plans to ease restrictions despite reporting more than 10,000 new cases, with its football league set to return next month and thousands of people being tested for antibodies to show whether they have had the virus or not.

Russia has seen a spike of coronavirus cases as other European states ease their lockdowns.  By Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV (AFP) Russia has seen a spike of coronavirus cases as other European states ease their lockdowns. By Kirill KUDRYAVTSEV (AFP)

Austria took an important symbolic step on Friday by reopening its restaurants and iconic Viennese cafes.

A mannequin at a bar in Vienna to help customers adhere to social distancing rules.  By JOE KLAMAR (AFP) A mannequin at a bar in Vienna to help customers adhere to social distancing rules. By JOE KLAMAR (AFP)

"We missed it and we're going to come back as much as possible," said Fanny and Sophie, 19-year-old students waiting for breakfast at a cafe in the Austrian capital.

Ireland will meanwhile begin to lift its lockdown in the coming days while introducing a 14-day quarantine period for people arriving in the nation.

On the other side of the world, Sydney's bars and restaurants opened their doors to customers Friday as a weeks-long lockdown eased.

"The desire to sit in a place that is not your house with your mates and have a drink is truly overwhelming," said Chrissy Flanagan, owner of The Sausage Factory, a bistro in Australia's biggest city.

US economic woes

France is one of the European countries to ease its coronavirus lockdown, but the government has called for self-restraint.  By FRANCK FIFE (AFP) France is one of the European countries to ease its coronavirus lockdown, but the government has called for self-restraint. By FRANCK FIFE (AFP)

The pressure to ease lockdowns has mounted as the catastrophic economic effects of the virus have become clearer.

In the United States, the world's worst-affected country with more than 85,000 deaths, industrial production dropped a record 11.2 percent in April, the largest drop in 101 years.

US President Donald Trump walks from Marine One to the White House as a secret service agent wearing a face mask looks in Washington, DC.  By Brendan Smialowski (AFP) US President Donald Trump walks from Marine One to the White House as a secret service agent wearing a face mask looks in Washington, DC. By Brendan Smialowski (AFP)

With 36.5 million Americans left unemployed by the coronavirus crisis -- more than 10 percent of the population -- Trump has been keen to ease lockdown measures as he seeks re-election in November.

But the president has also sought to deflect from his government's handling of the pandemic by ramping up his war of words with Beijing over responsibility for what he has dubbed the "Plague from China", threatening to cut ties between the two countries.

The virus first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year before spreading around the world, fuelled by air travel and a globalised economy.

Europe's top economy Germany meanwhile tipped into recession, suffering its worst steepest quarterly contraction since the global financial crisis in 2009.

A map showing the official number of coronavirus deaths per country, as of May 15 at 1100 GMT.  By Simon MALFATTO (AFP) A map showing the official number of coronavirus deaths per country, as of May 15 at 1100 GMT. By Simon MALFATTO (AFP)

'Nightmare scenario'

The pandemic has also caused political ructions.

Brazil lost its second health minister in a month when Nelson Teich resigned Friday over what an official said was "incompatibility" with right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro's approach to fighting the country's spiralling coronavirus crisis.

Bolsonaro has been a strident critic of stay-at-home measures.

Meanwhile the virus's march continues around the world.

The World Health Organization said Africa could have 231 million people infected and up to 190,000 could die.

There was also concern over the "nightmare scenario" of the discovery of infections in the world's biggest refugee camp, in Bangladesh, where upwards of a million Rohingya Muslims from neighbouring Myanmar live in squalor.

In the Philippines, a powerful storm forced tens of thousands of evacuees into cramped shelters, making social distancing nearly impossible.

The disease's range of victims is expanding too.

The WHO said it was studying a possible link between COVID-19 and a rare inflammatory illness that has sickened and killed children in Europe and the United States.

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