The number of coronavirus cases worldwide has reached over four million as some of the hardest-hit countries start lifting lockdown restrictions despite concern about a second wave of infections. Like the rest of the world, the Cayman Islands is gradually easing lockdown measures, but the fear is that there could be a spike in casualties.
The countries that reacted quickly and decisively, like South Korea, New Zealand and Vietnam, have seen relatively low death rates from COVID-19 but even they are not blasé about opening their economies too quickly.
Governments around the world are trying to stop the spread of COVID-19 while scrambling for ways to relieve pressure on their economies, which are facing a historic downturn with millions pushed into unemployment.
Despite the intense political pressure to reopen, nations are also keen to avoid second waves of infections that could overwhelm healthcare systems, with reminders in recent days of the threat posed by the virus.
COVID-19 cases continue to be low in Taiwan, a remarkable feat considering its proximity to China where the pandemic started. So far Taiwan has only recorded seven deaths from COVID-19 out of 400 total cases.
Taiwanese in Hubei, China where the COVID-19 pandemic began, but how the Taiwanese government eases crowd control and social distancing measures going forward is a tricky problem. As temperatures increase and the weather improves, there is likely to be increased travel domestically. The pressure is also on the government to try and alleviate the economic impact on Taiwan’s tourism industry from borders being closed to international tourism, through encouraging domestic tourism.
March saw only 200,000 arrivals in Taiwan, with the decline in air travel leading the aviation fuel surcharge to drop to zero for the first time in history. Borders will remain closed until clear international standards for travel are established, though there is increasing talk of opening borders between countries that have been relatively unaffected by COVID-19.
Vietnam reported no new COVID-19 cases on Sunday, marking 23 straight days without any infections.
The total number of COVID-19 cases remained at 288, including 148 imported ones who were quarantined righter after they entered Vietnam.
Vietnam came out of COVID-19 lockdown last week, and schools have restarted after being closed all year. The economy is restarting, and there’s hope the country could escape the worst economic ravages, or even benefit from plans to diversify manufacturing away from China.
There are no reported deaths. International press coverage of Vietnam's efforts has been broad and generally effusive – not something the regime has seen much of for some years, after cycles of corruption scandals and crackdowns.
Nevertheless, the often-cynical expats are now praising the nation’s efforts, grateful they live in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City and not back home.
Vietnam’s celebrated multilingual contact-tracing program seems to be the key. It lists all the places each diagnosed patient has been since contracting the virus – down to the addresses, for example, of street-side barbecued eel and noodle joints, after one particular eel-loving patient had picked it up at a St Patrick’s Day party in Saigon, one of the later virus clusters.
New Zealand businesses including malls, cinemas, cafes and gyms reopened on Thursday after some of the tightest restrictions in the world to stop the spread of the coronavirus were further loosened on Monday.
The Pacific nation was locked down for more than month under "level 4" restrictions that were eased by a notch in late April. It has continued to enforce strict social measures on many of its citizens and businesses, helping prevent widespread community proliferation of the virus.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the staggered move to "level 2" restrictions would mean retail, restaurants and other public spaces including playgrounds could reopen from Thursday.
Schools can open from next Monday while bars can only reopen from May 21, Ardern said. Gatherings will be limited to 10 people.
"The upshot is that in 10 days’ time we will have reopened most businesses in New Zealand, and sooner than many other countries around the world," Ardern announced.
And in South Korea, the capital Seoul shut all bars and clubs on Saturday as more than 50 cases were linked to a man who tested positive after spending time in one of the city's busiest nightlife districts.
“It’s not over until it’s over,” President Moon Jae-in told the nation, saying a new cluster shows the virus can spread widely at any time, and warning of a second wave late this year.
The Korea Centres for Disease Control and Prevention reported 34 new infections, the highest since April 9, after a small outbreak emerged around a slew of nightclubs, prompting the authorities to temporary close all nightly entertainment facilities around the capital. The death toll remained at 256.
Health Minister Park Neung-hoo said the government will decide on whether it will reopen schools in stages after examining the impact of the nightclub cases for two to three days.
Battling the first major coronavirus outbreak outside China, South Korea brought infections of the virus, and the disease COVID-19 that it causes, down drastically through widespread testing, aggressive contact tracing and tracking apps. The response has helped Asia’s fourth-largest economy come to grips with the pandemic without extensive the lockdowns seen elsewhere. The daily tally of new infections had hovered around 10 or less in recent weeks, with no or very few domestic cases in the previous 10 days before the new outbreak. The fresh outbreak comes just as the government was easing some social distancing restrictions and moving to fully reopen schools and businesses, in a transition from intensive social distancing to “distancing in daily life.”
This success of these nations comes in stark contrast to the United States, where the nation's top infectious disease expert, Dr Anthony Fauci, is among three members of the White House coronavirus task force now self-isolating after potential exposure. America has the far highest fatalities in the world with over 82,000 deaths and 1.3 million cases with New York the worst hit city. US contact tracing remains a patchwork of approaches and readiness levels. States are hiring and sourcing contact tracers, and experts say tens of thousands will be needed across the country.
Despite the risks, some governments in hard-hit Europe have said there are signs of progress that justify cautious steps towards normality.
France is seeing its death toll coming down to its lowest in six weeks, while nursing home fatalities also fell sharply as the nation relaxes curbs on public movement imposed eight weeks ago. The easing has brought mixed reactions.
"I've been scared to death," about the reopening, said Maya Flandin, a bookshop manager from Lyon. "It's a big responsibility to have to protect my staff and my customers."
French health officials have warned that social distancing must be kept up even as restrictions are eased.
In Spain, about half the population was allowed out on Monday for limited socialisation, and restaurants offer some outdoor service as the country begins a phased transition set to last through June.
With lingering fears of a resurgence, authorities excluded Madrid and Barcelona - two COVID-19 hotspots - from the first phase.
Belgium is also easing some restrictions and in some parts of Germany, bars and restaurants have started easing restrictions.
In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson laid out a plan for the nation to emerge out of its current lockdown. The UK introduced a mandatory 14-day quarantine for international arrivals to stop the spread of the virus.
Global economic figures are pointing to the most acute downturn in nearly a century, with businesses forced to shut and supply lines badly disrupted, and pressure is growing on leaders around the world to find a way out as the worldwide death toll topped 280,000.
At least India's trains have started rolling again and millions in the Philippines are able to leave their homes. India’s strict lockdown has so far helped keep confirmed virus infections relatively low among the population of 1.3 billion. Rail, road and air services were all suspended in late March. But in recent days, as the lockdown has eased and some businesses have resumed, infections and deaths have been increasing.
As the colossal rail network begins reopening, special trains will depart from select big cities, including New Delhi and Mumbai, and run at full capacity. Passengers will be allowed to enter stations only if they are asymptomatic and clear thermal screening.
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte said the country's lockdown, which has restricted millions to their homes and taken a heavy economic toll, will be eased. He warned that people who want to return to work must follow safeguards to avoid more deaths and a second wave of the virus.
Yet questions remain about how prepared many countries are to end lockdowns. The World Health Organization’s emergencies chief, Dr Michael Ryan, said robust contact tracing measures adopted by Germany and South Korea provide hope that those countries can detect and stop virus clusters before they get out of control.
But he said other nations have not effectively employed contact tracing investigators to contact people who test positive, track down their contacts and get them into quarantine before they can spread the virus. His views came at a time when there was a new outbreak in Wuhan, China, where the first cases started.
"Shutting your eyes and trying to drive through this blind is about as silly an equation as I’ve seen," Ryan said. "And I’m really concerned that certain countries are setting themselves up for some seriously blind driving over the next few months."
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