Germany and other parts of Europe took tentative steps to ease lockdown measures on Monday as more countries saw death rates from the coronavirus fall, but officials warned the battle against the pandemic was far from over.
The World Health Organisation defended its handling of the crisis against scathing criticism from Washington and others, with its chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus insisting the UN body had been warning against the virus “from day one”.
Spain recorded its lowest death toll in weeks on Monday, Britain its lowest in a fortnight and Italy saw its first drop in the number of cases since its first infection was recorded in February.
The encouraging news came as tight restrictions in place for weeks were lifted in parts of the continent, with some shops reopening in Germany and Denmark and parents dropping their children off at nurseries in Norway.
The hope is tempered by fears of new waves of infections, warnings that life will not be back to normal for many months and deep concern over the devastating impact the virus is having on the global economy.
Death rates drop, but officials warn anti-virus war is far from over
But even the smallest return to normality was welcome.
In the German city of Leipzig, fashion store owner Manuela Fischer said she was “incredibly happy” to be welcoming shoppers again.
In Norway, Silje Skifjell dropped off her sons at a nursery in the north of the capital Oslo.
“He was so excited we had to leave the house early to come here and see the other children,” she said of four-year-old Isaak, her eldest.
“I almost cried, he was so happy to see his friends.”
Governments around the world are mulling how and when to ease lockdowns that have kept more than half of humanity confined to their homes.
Not yet ‘out of the woods’
The virus has so far infected more than 2.4 million people globally and killed more than 165,000, with nearly two-thirds of the victims in Europe.
Germany, which has been hailed for keeping fatalities low despite a significant number of cases, allowed smaller shops to reopen in some regions from Monday.
Larger shops and those in major German cities will open later as part of an attempted phased return to a more normal existence that will also see some students go back to school from May 4.
Leipzig resident Abheshek, 25, said he welcomed a requirement to wear masks, but was feeling some trepidation.
“I’m afraid when all these people come together the coronavirus will spread a bit more.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Germans to stay disciplined, warning: “We stand at the beginning of the pandemic and are still a long way from being out of the woods.”
Denmark also reopened some small businesses, including hair salons, dentists and driving schools, while Italy allowed bookshops to open their doors.
France, which on Sunday recorded its lowest number of hospital deaths since March 23, said a nationwide lockdown in force for a month was beginning to bear fruit.
“We are scoring points against the epidemic,” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said.
But he added: “To imagine that, because the situation has stopped worsening and is starting to improve, the epidemic is behind us, would be a mistake.”
In Australia, the authorities in Sydney reopened three beaches for walking, running, swimming or surfing, while New Zealand announced it would ease a nationwide lockdown next week, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern saying: “We have stopped a wave of devastation.”
And in the United States — the country with the highest number of deaths and infections — the governor of hard-hit New York, Andrew Cuomo, said the outbreak was “on the descent”.
Many governments are anxious to get their countries up and running again, with huge parts of their economies shut down, millions thrown out of work and economists warning of a second Great Depression.
Spain became the latest country on Monday to warn of unprecedented economic hardship, with the central bank warning the country’s economy could contract by a whopping 13.6 percent this year.
In the United States, which has more than 759,000 confirmed infections and nearly 41,000 deaths, some are increasingly chafing under stay-at-home orders and are taking to the streets to protest.
Anti-lockdown demonstrations over the weekend drew hundreds of people in several states, including Colorado, Texas, Maryland, New Hampshire and Ohio.
President Donald Trump fuelled another bout of fury over the weekend by lending support to the protests against the lockdown restrictions — which medical experts say save countless lives.
WHO, China reject criticism
Trump, under fire for his handling of the crisis as he faces an election later this year, has lashed out at the WHO for its early handling of the outbreak and cut US funding for the global health body.
Responding during a virtual briefing in Geneva, Ghebreyesus said the WHO had been warning of the dangers of the virus from the start.
“We have been warning from day one that this is a devil that everyone should fight,” he said, adding that “there is nothing hidden from the US” about the pandemic.
China also hit back at US criticism, which has seen some in Washington push conspiracy theories claiming the virus could have originated at a maximum-security virology lab in its central city of Wuhan.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said the accusations against Beijing disrespected “the Chinese people’s tremendous efforts and sacrifices” in fighting the contagion.
“Any question about China’s transparency in the prevention and control of epidemic situation is not in line with facts,” Geng said.