Thousands streamed out of the Chinese city of Wuhan Wednesday after a lockdown on the birthplace of the coronavirus was lifted, offering a ray of hope even as Europe and the United States faced rising deaths and crippling economic pain.
As Wuhan reawakens, Western countries remain in the throes of a crisis that has claimed the lives of more than 80,000 people worldwide and forced around half of humanity into some form of lockdown.
The hardest-hit countries, among them Italy, Spain, France and the US, are grappling with how to balance public safety with the devastating impact of shutdowns that have erased millions of jobs, sent financial markets plunging and pummelled major industries from travel to construction.
In an alarming calculation of the economic costs, the French economy recorded its worst performance since 1945 during the first quarter, shrinking some six per cent.
Germany’s economy, the biggest in Europe, is also expected to fall into a ‘serious recession’ and shrink by nearly 10 per cent in the second quarter, leading researchers warned.
Yet health experts stressed it is too early to loosen restrictions that could accelerate the spread of a disease that has infiltrated every layer of society, from refugees to royals to Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson, who entered his third day in intensive care.
‘Now is not the time to relax measures. It is the time to once again double and triple our collective efforts to drive towards suppression with the whole support of society,’ said the World Health Organisation’s regional director for Europe, Hans Kluge.
In the ground-zero city of Wuhan, who led the world with its unprecedented lockdown, strict measures appeared to have paid off.
After a nearly 11-week travel ban was finally lifted, tens of thousands of people fled the city in joyous scenes that contrasted with the macabre mood around much of the world — even if some passengers were travelling in hazmat suits.
‘I’ve been stuck for 77 days! I’ve been stuck for 77 days!’ shouted one man, who arrived at the railway station for a train back to his home province of Hunan.
Yet not all is back to normal, with schools still closed and travel discouraged.
At the train station a robot whirred through crowds to spray their feet with disinfectant as it played a recorded message reminding them to wear face masks.
Passengers also had to pass temperatures checks and show green ‘health codes’ on their phone, which are calculated in part by whether their neighbourhoods have been declared virus-free.
‘Wuhan has lost a lot in this epidemic, and Wuhan people have paid a big price,’ a 21-year-old man surnamed Yao said.
‘Now that the lockdown has been lifted, I think we’re all pretty happy.’
At least 82,721 people have died around the world in 192 countries since the virus emerged in China in December, according to an AFP tally at 1000 GMT Wednesday based on official sources.
The pandemic has killed at least 17,127 in Italy and 14,555 in Spain. There are 12,911 deaths in the United States, 10,328 in France and 6,159 in Britain.
More than 1.4 million cases have been officially recorded around the world.
The mood was far bleaker in the United States, where the country mourned another 1,939 deaths over a period of 24 hours, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University, bringing the nation’s death toll to nearly 13,000.
President Donald Trump lashed out at the WHO, accusing it of a pro-Beijing bias as he threatened to cut funding.
The US president has criticised China’s handling of the pandemic and questioned the accuracy of official statistics that show its deaths have slowed to a trickle.
Yet Trump himself has also come under fire for initially downplaying the virus by likening it to the flu and failing to adequately prepare the country’s hospitals.
Medical staff around the world are working tirelessly in brimming intensive care units and makeshift hospitals erected in sports stadiums, on ships and even in an New York cathedral.
In Spain, home to the world’s second deadliest outbreak, another 757 deaths were reported Wednesday, bringing the toll up for a second day after several days of decline.
Antonio Alvarez, a 33-year-old nurse at Barcelona hospital, described his experience of the crisis as akin to bereavement.
‘I’ve had my phases of anger, of denial, you go through all of them.’
‘Now we are still a little overwhelmed but it is better. Fewer patients are dying,’ he said.
Hundreds are still dying daily in devastated Italy although the peak of the crisis appears to have passed, with the rise of infections hitting a new low.
Britain, meanwhile, is bracing for its most agonising days after another record 786 more deaths on Tuesday, while the prime minister’s hospitalisation underscored the seriousness of the disease for many in a country that was slow to react.
Global trade growth is expected to plummet by up to a third in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the World Trade Organisation said Wednesday, warning that the numbers would be ‘ugly’.
‘World trade is expected to fall by between 13 per cent and 32 per cent in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupts normal economic activity and life around the world,’ the WTO said in a statement.
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