Europe still 'in eye of the storm' despite moves to ease virus lockdowns


LONDON, United Kingdom (UPDATED) – Parts of Europe moved to reopen their streets and economies on Thursday, April 16, but the coronavirus pandemic was far from beaten, with the World Health Organization warning the continent was still in the "eye of the storm."

Since emerging in China late last year, the virus has turned the world upside down, killing tens of thousands, forcing half of humanity indoors and raising the specter of a second Great Depression.

Hope that its spread has peaked in Europe and the United States has seen some countries take tentative steps to ease restrictions, with US President Donald Trump set to unveil plans on Thursday for lifting lockdowns across the world's top economy.

Trump is anxious to get the United States moving again, as new data showed the country shedding an incredible 22 million jobs in the last month.

But with global cases and deaths still growing – and fears of a second wave of infections in previously hit countries – officials are warning that life around the world will not be returning to normal until a vaccine is available.

"We remain in the eye of the storm," the WHO's regional director for Europe, Hans Kluge, said in an online news conference from Copenhagen.

Positive signs in Spain, Italy, Germany, France and Switzerland were overshadowed by sustained or increased levels of infections in other countries, such as Britain, Turkey, Ukraine and Russia, he said.

"It is imperative that we do not let down our guard."

More than two million people have been infected with the virus around the world and 137,500 – including 90,000 in Europe – have died, according to an Agence France-Presse (AFP) tally.

Hard-hit parts of Europe have seen a slowdown in infections and deaths in recent days, with Spain recording 551 new deaths on Thursday, almost half of the daily toll at its peak.

Venturing out in Venice

After weeks on strict lockdowns, Spain and Italy have begun to ease restrictions, allowing some businesses to reopen.

In Venice, residents in mandatory face masks ventured out to see quiet streets and canals that once thronged with selfie-stick wielding tourists.

"I bought many books," Venetian Catrina told AFP after visiting one of the city's bookshops, which were allowed to reopen this week.

"I needed them. Like an addict – for something of substance."

Switzerland announced an easing of restrictions, with some shops and services – including beauty salons and DIY stores – allowed to resume business from April 27.

Germany also announced initial steps to reopen some shops and gradually restart schools, Denmark began reopening schools for younger children after a month-long closure and Finland lifted a blockade of Helsinki.

Trump has promised swift guidelines on reopening parts of the United States, telling reporters his "aggressive strategy" against the virus was working and that "the data suggests that nationwide we have passed the peak on new cases."

"We'll be the comeback kids, all of us," said Trump.

As European residents began to emerge from their homes, some feared it may be too soon.

"I think people should still hold out a little longer because I think it's going to come back again, not as intensely, but the pandemic is going to come back a little bit," deliveryman Gean Carlo Minaya told AFP in Madrid.

In other parts of Europe, severe restrictions were set to remain in place for weeks, with Britain expected to extend its lockdown measures later Thursday. It reported 861 new deaths from the virus Thursday, a spike of 100 on the previous day's increase.

Vaccine challenge

United Nations chief Antonio Guterres said only a "safe and effective vaccine" can return the world to normal, hoping that could be available by year-end.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation offered $150 million and called for global cooperation to ready vaccines, but its chief executive laid bare the challenge facing humanity.

"There are 7 billion people on the planet," said Mark Suzman. "We are going to need to vaccinate nearly every one. There is no manufacturing capacity to do that."

Even with a vaccine, the virus is expected to lay waste to the global economy, with the International Monetary Fund warning that $9 trillion could be lost in a second Great Depression.

In the developing world, there are growing fears of a collapse in social order as food becomes scarce – with the situation especially acute in Africa and Latin America.

In Riyadh, G20 nations of the world's major economies announced a one-year debt moratorium for the world's poorest nations.

The White House said Trump and other leaders of the G7 would discuss cooperation by video conference on Thursday.

But even in the US, the pandemic has caused historic job losses, with the latest data showing 5.2 million workers seeking unemployment benefits last week, bringing the total to 22 million new jobless since mid-March.

Many Americans are becoming increasingly desperate.

"At the end of this month, I'm done," said Reuben Isaacson of Boca Raton, Florida, who was laid off from an e-commerce startup in March.

"When the moratorium on evictions is lifted and Florida hasn't paid anybody any money, a bunch of people are going to be homeless and that includes me," he said.

'We will survive this'

Despite the gloom, tales of resilience and generosity around the world lifted spirits.

In Britain, Tom Moore, a 99-year-old World War II veteran, completed 100 laps of his garden to bring in more than £13 million ($16 million) in a fundraising challenge for healthcare staff.

The final lap of his garden in Bedfordshire, south England, was met with a military guard of honor and broadcast live on British TV.

"In the last war it was soldiers in uniform on the front line. This time our army are the doctors and nurses (in) uniforms," Moore told British TV earlier this week.

"We will survive this." –