France said on Tuesday that shops and markets can reopen next month, becoming the latest country to ease strict coronavirus measures as nations tread a fine line between allowing stalled economies to reboot while staving off a new wave of contagion.
More than half of humanity is under some sort of lockdown around the world to stem the spread of the deadly pandemic that has tipped economies toward a bruising global recession.
Over three million people are now infected worldwide, and more than 211,000 have been killed since the virus first emerged in China late last year.
But with some countries reporting falling infection numbers, governments are beginning to chart their way out of shutdowns that have pummelled the economy.
France on Tuesday said some shops and markets could resume business after May 11, along with primary schools and daycare centres that would reopen gradually.
But face masks will be required on public transport, French Prime Minister Edouard Phillipe said, adding that curbs can only be lifted “with prudence, progressively.”
Spain too said it would gradually transition out of its strict virus lockdown in a phased process would last until the end of June.
Meanwhile, Russia said it would consider a gradual end to quarantine measures from May 12, while Greece will start easing its lockdown measures from May 4, having “contained the first wave of the virus”, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said.
And from next week, Italians will be able to exercise outdoors and visit relatives — but only if they wear masks and refrain from hugs and handshakes.
Along with France and Spain, Italy is among the worst affected in Europe, with the three nations reporting well over 20,000 coronavirus deaths each.
But in Germany, which allowed some shops to reopen last week, experts warned against a rush to lift lockdown measures after new data showed a slight uptick in infection rates.
“We all need to take care that we don’t end up with more infections,” said Lothar Wieler, president of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for disease control.
Experts have warned of a second wave of contagion if restrictions are lifted too hastily, and the World Health Organization has cautioned that reinfection may be possible even among recovered patients.
With the world’s economic outlook looking bleak, calls are mounting in some quarters for governments to ease curbs to avoid a disaster in the hardest-hit sectors.
Forecasts warn of the worst global recession in a century, with oil prices tumbling and the travel and tourism sector badly hammered.
In Lebanon, anger at a spiralling economic crisis tipped over, bringing anti-government protesters back out into the streets in defiance of a government lockdown.
“I came down to raise my voice against hunger, poverty and rising prices,” Khaled, 41, told AFP, saying he had lost his job selling motorcycle parts and could no longer support his three children.
The world’s poorest were hardest hit — and the UN’s World Food Programme warned that the number of people across East Africa who do not have secure provisions of food could soar from 20 million to up to 43 million.
In the US, which has the world’s highest number of coronavirus fatalities with more than 56,000 dead, President Donald Trump again took aim at China’s handling of the crisis.
“We are not happy with China… we believe it could have been stopped at the source. It could have been stopped quickly and it wouldn’t have spread all over the world,” he said.
Asked about an editorial in the German press that called on China to pay Germany $165 billion in reparations for economic damage done by the virus, Trump said the US could take its own action.
“We are talking about a lot more money than Germany’s talking about,” he said.
“We haven’t determined the final amount yet. It’s very substantial.”
China’s foreign ministry was unequivocal in its response, accusing US politicians of “telling barefaced lies”.
Spokesman Geng Shuang accused the politicians of having “only one objective: shirk their responsibility for their own poor epidemic prevention and control measures, and divert public attention”.
Some US states have moved to lift restrictions despite warnings from health experts — but to the delight of some citizens.
“We need human touch, human contact,” said 64-year-old Kim Kaseta, as she tucked into breakfast in the US state of Georgia.
But Harvard researchers warn that most US states do not yet have sufficient Covid-19 testing to consider relaxing stay-at-home orders.
Despite other European countries moving towards reopening schools and shops, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was too early for the UK to follow suit.
That was in contrast to New Zealand, where people indulged in fast food and coffee shop treats for the first time in five weeks on Tuesday as the country lifted its strict lockdown.
“We see the difference in other countries and I don’t envy them, that’s for sure,” said Wellington resident Cheryl Robertson, who planned to celebrate her newfound freedom with a curry.
In Australia, hundreds of surfers and swimmers rushed back to the waves at Bondi Beach in Sydney, five weeks after police closed the area because of large crowds flouting social distancing rules.
“I’ve been excited for like a week, I was like: 7:30 right here,” Diane Delaurens told AFP, dripping after his early-morning surf session.
No one knows when the virus crisis will end as scientists race to develop treatments and, eventually, a vaccine.
Britain sounded the warning at signs of coronavirus-related syndrome emerging in children — including abdominal pain and inflammation around the heart, that have required intensive care intervention.
“We’re doing a lot of research now. What I would also stress is that it is rare. Although it is very significant for those children who do get it, the number of cases is small,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock told LBC radio.