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Global report: Covid-19 grips world despite lockdown easing in Europe

Cases growing in Brazil, South Africa and India as Spain begins to open beaches and restaurant terraces

The coronavirus pandemic continued to grip much of the world on Tuesday, as cases grew from India to South Africa and Brazil overtook the UK to become the country with the third-highest number of confirmed infections.

The US, Russia and Brazil now top the international table for confirmed cases, followed by the UK, Spain and Italy. Brazil has reported over 250,000 infections despite limited testing. Hospital officials say more than 85% of intensive care beds in the states of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo are full.

Brazil accounts for more cases than any other country in Latin America, which has seen 480,000-plus cases and 31,000 dead. Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, has snubbed physical distancing rules and has called for gyms, hair salons and other businesses to reopen.

Two of Bolsanaro’s health ministers have resigned in a month after falling out with the president. According to opinion polls about two thirds of Brazilians agree with quarantines and support public health measures introduced by regional governors to slow the disease’s spread.

According to Johns Hopkins University global cases have now surpassed 4.8 million. The death toll stands at 318,534. India has topped 100,000 cases. Iran – which saw a drop-off in April – has seen infections increase in May.

The surge in Latin America and Asia came as European countries continued to soften Covid-19 restrictions. On Monday, Italy permitted cafes, restaurants and bars to reopen for the first time in two months. Worshippers went back to churches and local markets sold produce.

People across 70% of Spain are now allowed to eat or drink on terraces outside restaurants and bars, and the city council in Barcelona announced that locals will be able to return to the sand to sunbathe from Wednesday.

They will be able to make “recreational use” of the Catalan capital’s beaches, as long as they respect physical distancing, according to the deputy mayor for safety, Albert Batlle. However, people will not be allowed to swim and must spend no longer than an hour on the beach.

The Madrid region, the Barcelona metropolitan area and parts of of Castilla y León are still in the preliminary phase of lockdown de-escalation, and accounted for the majority of the new deaths and hospital admissions over the past 24 hours.

Of the 83 new Covid-19 deaths reported by the health ministry on Tuesday, 31 were in the Madrid region, 25 in Catalonia, and seven in Castilla y León. Of the 166 people admitted to hospital for the virus over the previous 24 hours, 67 of them were in Madrid and 38 in Catalonia.

The government has announced the wearing of face masks is to be compulsory as it prepares to seek a fifth, two-week extension of the state of emergency that has been in effect since 14 March.

“Masks will be obligatory on public transport – as they already are – but also in enclosed spaces and on the streets if the minimum safety distance of two metres can’t be observed,” the government said in a statement. Orders officially stipulating their use will be made over the next few days.

Meanwhile, Greece signalled it will announce a plan to revive its tourism sector. Media reports suggest that the country’s borders may be re-opened by mid-June, two weeks earlier than expected.

Under the plan, to be explained on Wednesday by the prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, travellers from across the EU as well as Israel would be allowed into Greece. It is unclear whether they would be subjected to a Covid-19 blood test or be asked to adhere to other health protocols.

Greek outlets reported that travellers would be obliged to maintain distancing rules at airports and to wear masks during flights. The news came as Ryanair announced that it would be resuming flights to destinations in Greece, including Corfu.

In a country where tourism accounts for 25% of GDP, the government is hoping to capitalise on its successful handling of the pandemic to attract what Mitsotakis has called “a larger piece of Europe’s smaller tourism pie”.

“Given the importance of tourism and the catering sector for the country’s economy, particularly during the second half of the year, our plan will have a three-pronged strategy covering employment, taxation and liquidity,” the government spokesman Stelios Petsas said. “This summer will not be like last year.”

On Monday, Greece reopened 200 archaeological sites including the Acropolis in Athens. In 2019 a record 33 million tourists visited Greece – the equivalent of three times its population.

France intends to ease its entry restrictions with EU countries from mid-June. French borders have been closed to all but essential crossings since early April and only French residents returning home or others with “compelling professional and personal reasons” are allowed in.

Foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said any changes would be on the basis of a reciprocal arrangement with France’s neighbours.

“I think progressively from 15 June we can arrive at a general easing (of restrictions), at least that is what I hope,” Le Drian told French radio. Le Drian said from Wednesday French nationals returning from outside the EU would be asked to self-quarantine for two weeks, but added this would be “voluntary”.

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