Spain eases strict lockdown as US approves virus drug

AFP , Saturday 2 May 2020

People exercise on a seafront promenade in this photo taken with a telephoto lens in Barcelona, Spain, Saturday, May 2, 2020 AP

Spaniards took to the streets to jog, cycle and rollerskate for the first time following 48 days of confinement on Saturday as some European nations cautiously eased virus lockdowns while Russia reported a sudden surge in its infections.

As governments weigh how to lift virus restrictions to restart economies against the risk of new outbreaks, US authorities brought some hope by approving an experimental drug for emergency use on coronavirus patients.

The decision was the latest step in a global push to find treatments and a vaccine for the coronavirus, which has left half of humanity under some form of lockdown and pushed the world economy towards its worst downturn since the Great Depression in the 1930s.

The virus has now killed more than 240,000 people worldwide, according to an AFP tally of official figures, and infected 3.3 million since it first emerged in China late last year.

With signs the pandemic is slowing in the hardest-hit nations, European countries and some parts of the US have begun to lift restrictions to try to inject life into economies crippled by weeks of closure.

From Madrid to Mallorca, Spaniards flocked to the streets as they were allowed to exercise and walk freely outside after the government eased seven weeks of strict lockdown in a country with one of the highest number of fatalities at nearly 25,000.

"After so many weeks in confinement, I badly wanted to go out, run, see the world," said financial advisor Marcos Abeytua in Madrid's Chueca district. "Yesterday, I was like a child on Christmas Eve."

Near the city's Retiro park, residents were out running, sometimes in groups. Crowds of joggers also mingled with cyclists and skateboarders in Barcelona's seaside neighbourhood.

"This all seems a bit crazy to me. On the first day we get some freedom I don't see any safe distancing at all," said Christian, an Italian living in Barcelona.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez however said masks would be obligatory on public transport from Monday, and children and the elderly still face restrictions on when they can go outside.

Spain, Germany, Austria and Scandinavian nations are gradually easing lockdowns as the virus cases slow though they will keep social distancing measures, the use of masks and testing to try to track infections.

France, which will lift parts of its lockdown on May 11, on Saturday decided to extend a health emergency by two months until late July.

"We are going to have to perform a long-distance run," Health Minister Olivier Veran said.

After a two-month shutdown, Italians on Monday will be allowed to stroll in parks and visit relatives. Restaurants can open for takeaways and wholesale stores can resume business.

"We must maintain social distancing, maximum hygiene levels, and masks. We've done our bit to the best of our ability. From Monday, it's up to you," emergency response official Domenico Arcuri said at a news conference.

Italy -- with the second most fatalities after the United States -- on Saturday reported that its daily death toll had jumped by 474, the highest in nearly two weeks.

Italian media said the total included 282 previously unaccounted deaths outside hospitals.

But in Russia, authorities reported the largest spike in their coronavirus cases with the new infections rising by nearly 10,000 in a single day.

In Moscow, the epicentre of Russia's outbreak, around two percent of the population is infected by COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, officials said.

"The threat is apparently on the rise," said Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin.

- Treatment hopes -

More than 3.3 million cases of infection have been officially diagnosed in 195 countries, including 1.5 million in Europe alone. That number is likely only a fraction of true cases as testing is still limited.

The United States has the most deaths with more than 65,000, followed by Italy with 28,236, the United Kingdom with 28,131, Spain with 25,100 deaths and France with 24,594 fatalities.

In New York City, an emergency field hospital erected in Central Park to treat COVID-19 patients is also set to close, the group running it said Saturday, as virus cases decline in the city.

Some dozen tents went up opposite Mount Sinai Hospital in March as New York boosted hospital capacity for the outbreak's peak.

US President Donald Trump on Friday announced that Remdesivir, an antiviral drug initially developed to treat Ebola, was given the green light for use after a major trial found that it boosted recovery in serious COVID-19 patients.

"It's really a very promising situation," Trump said on Friday at the White House.

The drug incorporates itself into the virus's genome, short-circuiting its replication process.

Its approval came as the US leaders struggled with growing pressure from citizens wearying of stay-at-home orders.

Trump is keen for a turnaround as the world's largest economy reels with tens of millions left jobless.

Texas became the largest US state yet to ease curbs, while anti-lockdown demonstrations were held in several states -- including California, where officials had re-closed beaches beginning Friday to avoid a repeat of last weekend when crowds flocked to the shoreline.

In Huntington Beach, about 35 miles (55 kilometers) south of Los Angeles, several thousand people rallied to denounce the shutdown order.

"Open California!" chanted protesters near the closed beaches, carrying signs that read "All jobs are essential" or "Freedom is essential".

- Hong Kong shops opening -

In Asia, India announced that the lockdown on its 1.3 billion people -- the world's biggest -- would continue for two more weeks from May 4.

In Singapore, the government said Saturday that pet food stores and hair salons will be allowed to reopen on May 12.

Most of the city-state's infections have been detected at dormitories housing migrant workers, and their confinement was extended to June 1.

Hong Kong recorded zero confirmed case of coronavirus on Saturday, for the sixth day within a week.

The city's social distancing regulations including limits on gatherings of more than four people are due to expire on May 7. Authorities have not decided whether to extend them.

The city's chief executive has said that civil servants will return to work in the office starting from May 4.

During a long weekend with public holidays to celebrate Buddha's birthday and Labour Day, residents flocked to country parks and the city's outlying islands to get some fresh air.

Shops and restaurants started to resume business in normal opening hours with more consumers going out to streets and shopping malls.

May Day on Friday carried extra significance this year because of the staggering number of people put out of work by the pandemic with the global economy in a tailspin.

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