Nations slow reopening as resurgent coronavirus stalks globe

Passengers of a flight from Paris wearing protective face masks arrive at the Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport in Athens on June 15, 2020. (Photo: AFP)
  • Agence France-Presse
  • July 16, 2020 3:38 AM

Washington, United States | Coronavirus infections were surging across the globe on Wednesday, forcing several countries to put the brakes on reopening or impose new restrictions on their weary populations.

The number of COVID-19 cases worldwide topped 13.4 million and more than 581,000 deaths have been reported since the virus emerged late last year in China.

With the situation predicted to worsen in the United States, Walmart, the world's largest retailer, said it would require customers to wear masks at all its stores to help stop the virus spreading.

Venezuela, four days after announcing a loosening of restrictions, became the latest country to reimpose localized lockdown measures, including a "radical quarantine" in the capital Caracas; while Bolivia's La Paz department said it would undergo a four-day total quarantine.

Latin America topped 150,000 deaths Wednesday, becoming the world's second hardest-hit region after Europe, where a total of 203,793 people have died.

Brazil accounted for roughly half of Latin America's deaths, with more than 1,200 new fatalities recorded Wednesday bringing the total toll since the outbreak began there to 75,366.

In Ireland, Prime Minister Micheal Martin delayed the end of the lockdown because of a surge in new cases, with restrictions to remain in place until August 10 and the government also mandating the wearing of masks in shops.

The United States meanwhile set a new record Wednesday with more than 67,000 cases registered in the previous 24 hours. 

The country has the world's highest death toll at more than 137,000 fatalities, and officials are scrambling to roll back reopenings that were meant to revive economies.

- 'Let's stop this nonsense' -

The latest research models show the number of US deaths projected to rise to over 150,000 by next month. 

"We've got to almost reset this and say, 'Okay, let's stop this nonsense," Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease expert, told The Atlantic.

In the US state of Oklahoma, the Republican governor, Kevin Stitt, who has often declined to wear a mask, said he had tested positive for COVID-19.

The use of masks to slow the spread of the virus has become a political flashpoint in the US, where Trump had resisted wearing one until recently and at times mocked the trend.

Stitt's state recorded a single-day record of 1,075 new cases, while its neighbor to the south, Texas, reported 10,791 new cases and 110 new fatalities -- both "new highs."

Cases and death tolls continue to mount across the United States, particularly in the south and west, with Florida and California also hard hit.

Walmart meanwhile said it will require shoppers at its more than 5,300 stores to wear masks starting on July 20, joining a growing group of US businesses in mandating the protection.

"We know this is a simple step everyone can take for their safety and the safety of others in our facilities," Walmart's US chief operating officer Dacona Smith said.

- Vaccine candidate trials -

Amid the grim forecasts, American biotech firm Moderna said it would start the final stage of human trials for its vaccine candidate on July 27, after promising results from earlier testing.

Moderna is considered a leader in the global race to find a vaccine, and while its study should run until October 2022, preliminary results should be available long before then.

In the Asia-Pacific region, which had been somewhat successful in fighting the pandemic, there was fresh evidence of the deadly threat still posed by the virus.

Hong Kong's bars, gyms, and beauty salons closed again Wednesday and a ban on gatherings of more than four people came into force as the city battled a fresh outbreak.

There was alarm in Japan too, where Tokyo's governor warned that the capital was on its highest virus alert level after a spike in infections.

That came after the Indian state of Bihar, with a population of around 125 million, announced a 15-day virus lockdown starting Thursday.

- 'Please stop' -

Authorities in Australia, meanwhile, pleaded Wednesday with the public to heed social distancing guidelines, with roughly five million people in Melbourne in lockdown since last week in a bid to contain a new outbreak.

"A particular concern for us is the ongoing parties and gatherings," said Rick Nugent, acting assistant commissioner of Victoria state. "Please stop."

Face masks will also become compulsory in England's shops from next week, while in South Africa, where the number of cases topped 300,000, a nationwide curfew was reimposed.

On Thursday Spain will honour its 28,400 victims at a state ceremony to be attended by top EU and World Health Organization figures. The country is already seeing a surge in cases barely three weeks after coming out of lockdown.

© Agence France-Presse

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