GENEVA: Germany on Wednesday (April 15) announced plans to lift some restrictions imposed due to the coronavirus pandemic, becoming the first major European country to undertake the difficult task of reopening without triggering a new wave of infection.
When US President Donald Trump came under fire for ordering the freezing of American funds for the World Health Organization, the Group of 20 (G20) announced a one-year debt moratorium on the world’s poorest countries.
The number of COVID-19 cases worldwide surged past two million, meanwhile, according to an AFP count, and the number of deaths reached 131,000.
Germany is the largest of several European countries which announced tentative steps on Wednesday to reopen their economy and society.
Denmark began reopening schools for younger children after a month-long closure and Finland lifted a two-week railroad and road blockade in the Helsinki area.
Lithuania says it will allow small shops to reopen starting Thursday.
Other countries are also fiddling with containment rules, with Iran set to let some small businesses reopen and India allowing millions of rural people to return to work.
In South Korea, people went to the polls on Wednesday and expressed strong support to President Moon Jae-in, praising his handling of the epidemic.
After being home to the second largest outbreak in the world, South Korea has largely controlled the virus through extensive testing, contact tracing and social distance.
But the return to full scale to normal is still far away in most other countries.
Harvard scientists have warned that periods of recurring social distance might be needed as far back as 2022 to avoid excessive hospitals.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, who has allowed work to restart in several factories and build sites, warned that “nothing will be the same until the vaccine is found.”
Belgium extends home stay orders until at least 3 May and bans mass meetings until the end of August.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel announced the first step in canceling the coronavirus restrictions that had plunged the economy into recession.
Most shops will be allowed to open once they have a “plan to keep clean” even though schools must remain closed until May 4 and a ban on large public events will remain in effect until August 31.
“We must proceed with extreme caution,” Merkel told reporters in Berlin.
The school will gradually reopen with priority given to students who will take the leave test.
And the government urged people to wear masks when shopping or using public transportation, but stopped making it a requirement like in neighboring Austria.
Offering a lifeline for the poorest countries in the world, the G20 – a world-leading economic group – says it will temporarily suspend debt payments from the poorest countries.
Suspension will free up more than US $ 20 billion for these countries to focus on the pandemic and will last at least one year, according to Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan.
But the global economic outlook remains bleak, with Germany already in recession and US industrial output declining by 6.3 percent – the biggest decline in seven decades.
More than a third of French workers are temporarily unemployed, the government said.
The number of deaths due to the virus reached 17,000 in France but in a sign of hospitalization dropped for the first time.
READ: The number of victims of the French virus is above 17,000, the number being hospitalized for the first time
On the horizon is the worst economic downturn in a century, which the IMF said could see US $ 9 trillion removed from the global economy.
As the world tries to map its way out of the crisis, Trump comes to criticize his freeze on payments to WHO, the UN health agency.
“There is no doubt that areas for improvement will be identified and there will be lessons for all of us to learn,” said WHO chairman Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
UN chief Antonio Guterres condemned Trump’s move while billionaire Bill Gates, a major contributor to WHO, tweeted that cutting the funds was “just as dangerous.”
European allies both disagreed and Washington’s rivals were also aiming – Russia condemned the “selfish approach” of the US, and China and Iran condemned the decision.
Trump accused WHO on Tuesday of “mismanaging and covering up the spread of the corona virus” and said it could be overcome if the organization had accurately assessed the situation in China late last year.
When European countries made tentative steps to open up, in countries that were poorer and more densely populated, the government was still struggling to enforce restrictions on movements that were piling up misery to the needy.
Fears of hunger and possible social unrest are particularly acute in parts of Africa and Latin America.
In Cape Town, clashes erupted on Tuesday when police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at residents protesting access to food aid.
A similar crisis occurred in Ecuador, where hunger defeated the fear of the virus for residents in the badly affected slums of the city of Guayaquil.
“The police come with a whip to make people run, but what do you think of the poor ‘Stay home’ if you don’t have enough food to eat?” said Carlos Valencia, a 35-year-old teacher.
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