Spain reopened parts of its coronavirus-stricken economy on Monday as slowing death tolls in some of the worst-hit countries boosted hopes the curve may be starting to flatten and lockdown restrictions could soon be eased.
Watched by a world that is keen to temper a brutal pandemic-induced recession, some Spanish factory and construction staff were set to return to work within strict safety guidelines.
However China, where the virus emerged late last year, recorded its highest number of infections in weeks — most of them imported cases — as warnings echoed that lifting restrictions too early could unleash a second wave of COVID-19.
French president Emmanuel Macron was set to warn the nation that its lockdown would stay in place for several more weeks at least, while outlining steps for recovery.
The worldwide death toll from the novel coronavirus pandemic rose to 114,539 on Monday, according to a tally compiled by AFP at 1100 GMT from official sources.
More than 1,853,300 declared cases have been registered in 193 countries and territories since the epidemic first emerged in China in December. Of these cases, at least 395,000 are now considered recovered.
In the United States, now the epicentre of the pandemic, the death toll stands at 22,109 with 557,590 infections. At least 41,831 patients have recovered.
Italy is the second worst-hit country with 19,899 deaths from 156,363 infections.
It is followed by Spain with 17,489 fatalities from 169,496 confirmed infections, France with 14,393 deaths and 132,591 infections and Britain with 11,329 deaths from 84,270 cases.
China — excluding Hong Kong and Macau — has to date declared 3,341 deaths and 82,160 cases including 108 new ones, with 77,663 recoveries. It reported two new deaths.
Yet there is cautious optimism the virus may have reached its peak.
Spain’s death toll fell again on Monday with 517 fatalities, plus the lowest daily figure of new confirmed infections since March 20.
France and the US also saw a drop in daily COVID-19 deaths, along with Italy which reported its lowest fatalities in three weeks.
But Spain’s prime minister Pedro Sanchez warned his country was ‘far from victory’, with the lockdown restrictions for the rest of the nation’s 47 million people remaining in place.
‘We are all keen to go back out on the streets... but our desire is even greater to win the war and prevent a relapse,’ he said.
Police in Madrid handed out face masks to commuters at a train station where life appeared to be creeping back to normal, as workers in protective gear wiped down turnstiles.
In the US — now the world’s worst-hit nation with a fifth of all deaths and more than half a million confirmed cases — the government’s top infectious disease expert added to hopes the virus may have peaked.
Anthony Fauci said parts of the country could begin easing restrictions in May, but warned that the world’s biggest economy would not turn back on like a ‘light switch’.
President Donald Trump had previously wanted the US to be back to normal by Easter, but most of the country remained at a standstill.
In Britain, prime minister Boris Johnson was resting at his official country residence Chequers a day after being discharged following ‘a week in which the NHS has saved my life, no question’, referring to the country’s state-run National Health Service.
Britain’s death toll passed 11,329 and it is now seeing daily fatalities to match — and on one occasion exceed — those previously seen in Italy and Spain.
Johnson, like Trump, had initially resisted stringent measures such as shutting down public places.
In France, Macron is set address the nation, and sources said he would announce the lockdown in place since March 17 must be extended beyond its current April 15 expiration date until well into May.
Macron will be looking to strike a careful balance between warning France — where the death toll stands at 14,393 — that an early relaxation of the lockdown could be disastrous, while reassuring people that the government has a plan to get the country back to normal.
In China, where authorities appeared to have the virus under control last week, officials reported 108 new symptomatic cases Monday, the highest number of confirmed infections in a single day in over a month.
Governments are under pressure to keep populations safe while preventing economic collapse, amid fears of a downturn not seen since the Great Depression.
But the World Health Organisation has warned countries against lifting lockdown restrictions too early.
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