ROME/SYDNEY (Reuters) – Italy was among a slew of countries easing lockdown restrictions on Monday to resurrect their economies, but officials cautioned against moving too swiftly as new coronavirus cases passed 3.5 million globally and deaths neared a quarter of a million.
Italy, among the world’s hardest-hit countries, started to relax the longest lockdown in Europe, allowing about 4.5 million people to return to work after nearly two months at home.
Spain, Nigeria, Azerbaijan, Malaysia, Israel, Tunisia and Lebanon were also among countries easing some restrictions, variously reopening factories, construction sites, parks, hairdressers and libraries. In the United States, around half of states partially reopened their economies over the weekend.
The easing comes as the daily rate of new COVID-19 cases worldwide has been sitting in a 2%-3% range over the past week, down from a peak of around 13% in mid-March.
Global cases have risen to around 3.52 million, according to a Reuters tally based on government data. However, cases may cause only mild symptoms and not everyone with symptoms is tested, while most countries only record hospital deaths.
“We still have to be skeptical about the numbers we get,” Peter Collignon, an infectious diseases physician and microbiologist at Canberra Hospital, told Reuters.
“We could easily have a second or a third wave because a lot of places aren’t immune,” Collignon said, noting the world was well short of herd immunity, which requires around 60% of the population to have recovered from the disease.
Countries are only gradually reopening due to such fears.
In Italy, where the novel coronavirus has killed almost 29,000 people, factories can restart dormant production lines, parks can reopen, while relatives can once again meet up.
However, friends have been told to keep apart and most shops must stay shut until May 18. Restaurants and bars can only offer take-aways, while schools, cinemas and theatres will remain shut for the indefinite future.
“It is good to be back, but the world has totally changed,” said Gianluca Martucci, pulling up the shutters on the small warehouse of a catering business in the backstreets of Rome.
“The government has been very wise so far, but I worry that we might be starting up a little too soon … I don’t know if the country could survive a second wave.”
A phased reopening like Italy’s is also being pursued elsewhere, with local variations.
Israel, after weeks of strict closures, has started to relax curbs. Schools for children in grades 1-3, aged six to nine, have reopened, following the opening of some stores in late April.
Hotels, gyms, swimming pools, libraries, museums, non-medical treatments and school for grades 4-6 would reopen on May 17 if this plan is approved by the cabinet on Monday. If infection rates remain low, restaurants, cinemas, event halls and school grades 7-10 would follow on May 31.
In Tunisia, a first stage of reopening began on Monday, with half the civil service returning to work as well as construction sites and public transport.
Clothes and furniture shops, hairdressers and carpentry workshops are not supposed to reopen for at least a week, but some were already starting to welcome in customers.
“I am happy my business has returned,” said Salma ben Naceur, a furniture shop owner in the Mnihla suburb of Tunis. “If the suspension continued for another month, we would have declared bankruptcy.”
WAR OF WORDS ON VIRUS
Officials are going to lengths to stress that the easing of measures does not mean people should lower their guard.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said the country was still in the “full throes of the pandemic”, telling La Stampa newspaper the “phase 2” of the lockdown “must not be seen as a signal that we’re all free”.
In the United States, even as warm weather led sunseekers to flock to green spaces in Manhattan, the epicentre of the U.S. epidemic, President Donald Trump warned the national death toll could rise to 100,000. The coronavirus has already killed almost 68,000.
Governments are reluctant to prolong draconian measures that, though often broadly backed by the public, have come at a high economic price.
Factory activity was ravaged across the world in April, business surveys showed, and the outlook looked bleak as shutdowns froze global production and slashed demand. As a result, the global economy is expected to suffer its steepest contraction on record this year.
“This past week saw the amazing coincidence of the publication of the deepest quarterly economic decline in the Western world in almost 100 years and the conclusion to the strongest monthly equity rally in more than 30 years,” said Erik Nielsen, chief economist at UniCredit.
Escalating tensions between the United States and China over the origin of the pandemic drove down stock markets and oil prices on Monday as investors around the world feared a new trade war.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday there was “a significant amount of evidence” that the virus emerged from a laboratory in the Chinese city of Wuhan. He did not provide evidence or dispute an earlier U.S. intelligence conclusion that the virus was not man-made.
An editorial in China’s Global Times said he was “bluffing” and called on the United States to present its evidence.
Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer in Rome, Steven Scheer in Tel Aviv, Tarek Amara in Tunis, Jonathan Cable in London, Sam Holmes in Sydney, Jonathan Allen in New York and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Writing by Pravin Char; Editing by Nick Tattersall
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