US under siege as pandemic accelerates, Britain eases quarantine

July 3, 2020 12:02 PM

The United States posted a record 53,000 new coronavirus cases as the deadly pandemic accelerated across the Americas, but its slowdown in Europe led Britain to announce Friday the first exemptions to its quarantine rules.

With Europe looking to turn the page on the biggest public health crisis in modern history, travellers arriving into Britain from Germany, France, Spain and Italy will no longer be required to self-isolate starting July 10.

Touching almost every country on Earth, COVID-19 -- the disease brought on by the virus -- has hit at least 10.7 million people and killed 516,000 globally, shattering previously buoyant economies and bringing public life to a standstill.

Yet while much of the planet pursued a return to some semblance of normality, the United States soared past 50,000 new infections Thursday for the second time in two days, casting a grim pall over its upcoming Independence Day celebrations.

Now the epicentre of the pandemic, the country has recorded nearly 129,000 deaths out of more than 2.7 million cases. It's expected to record its three millionth infection next week.

Florida, which now has more than 169,000 cases, is a key focus of public health experts who worry about a surge in southern and western US states.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis blamed the rise on "social interactions" among young people gathering at parties, beaches, bars, swimming pools and elsewhere, as well as a more "robust" testing program.

In Texas, where more than 2,500 people have died, Governor Greg Abbott ordered people in counties with 20 or more cases to wear masks and banned gatherings of more than 10.

The move came after Texas reported nearly 8,000 new cases on Thursday, amid a record spike in infections that led to the governor largely halting the reopening program that started in early May.

States that reopened their economies the earliest and fastest after the pandemic struck -- and against the advice of federal health authorities -- are now experiencing the highest caseloads.

- 'Roaring back' -

Florida and other so-called "Sun Belt" states have been forced to re-shut restaurants, bars and beaches as the nation braces for the July 4 weekend.

These include California, which has seen a 56 percent increase in hospitalizations over two weeks, Governor Gavin Newsom said.

But President Donald Trump, under fire for his handling of the crisis, highlighted positive jobs data that showed 4.8 million people were back to work in June. 

"Today's announcement proves that our economy is roaring back," said Trump. "The crisis is being handled."

The president's characteristically optimistic outlook came a day after Arizona -- population 7.3 million -- recorded more new cases and deaths than the entire European Union, which has 446 million citizens.

But with some American governors now imposing 14-day quarantines on visitors from harder-hit states, the EU has begun reopening its borders. Residents of the United States, Brazil and virus-ravaged Russia are still being denied entry.

The World Health Organization warned on Wednesday that the pandemic was accelerating, with more than half of the world's infections over the past half year recorded in June alone.

And the past week has seen new highs, with cases topping "160,000 on every single day," WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

Cases have been skyrocketing across Latin America. Brazil, the region's largest economy, has almost 1.5 million confirmed cases, second only to the United States.

Nevertheless, popular tourist city Rio de Janeiro authorized bars, restaurants and cafes to reopen at 50 percent capacity.

The country's "R number" -- the average amount of people to whom the infected will pass the virus -- was one a month ago but has since risen to 1.5.

"That number will increase even more with reopening, bringing health problems to our population," Roberto Medronho, director of research at Rio's Clementino Fraga Filho University Hospital, told AFP. 

Brazil was nearing 61,000 deaths on Thursday, with 1.45 million infections. Colombia, the fourth largest economy in the region, passed 100,000 cases while Peru topped 10,000 dead.

- Djokovic negative -

Indigenous people across Latin America have been particularly hard hit due to weak immune systems and centuries of state neglect.

The Pan American Health Organization estimates at least 20,000 people are infected in the Amazon River basin, where some areas are only accessible by boat.

The PAHO has also warned that the death toll in Latin America and the Caribbean could quadruple to more than 400,000 by October without stricter public health measures.

In Europe, countries are trying to safely revive a struggling tourism sector by opening borders to 15 countries ranging from Algeria to Uruguay.

Travelers from China, where the virus first emerged late last year, will be allowed to enter the EU if Beijing reciprocates.

Outside the EU, countries in the Western Balkans which have so far been spared the worst of the virus are now seeing a new rise in cases.

After holding national elections and sporting events throughout June, Serbia on Thursday announced new restrictions on gatherings of more than five people in its four hardest-hit towns. 

The country's world number one tennis player Novak Djokovic, meanwhile announced he and his wife had tested negative for COVID-19 after catching an infection at a controversial tournament he organized in the region.

In the Middle East, deaths in Iran surpassed 11,000 on Thursday as the country records a rise in fatalities and cases following a low in early May.

Australia warns against conspiracy theories

Coronavirus conspiracy theories are hampering frantic efforts to contain a steep spike in cases around the city of Melbourne, where more than 10,000 people have refused testing, Australian health authorities warned Friday.

Health officials in the southern state of Victoria pled with the public to get themselves tested for COVID-19 and to ignore disinformation propagating online.

Having dodged the worst ravages of the pandemic and eased most lockdown restrictions, Australia is now struggling to contain several clusters around its second-biggest city that are delivering dozens of new cases each day.

"Disappointingly however we have had more than 10,000 people who have refused to be tested," health minister Jenny Mikakos said.

Officials were still analysing the reasons given for refusing testing, but Mikakos said: "The report that I have received is that some people believe that coronavirus is a conspiracy, or that it won't impact on them."

Describing the trend as "concerning" she said, "What I want to stress here is that coronavirus is a very contagious virus. It can go through your family very quickly."

She said a "testing blitz" was vital to trace, track and ultimately check the spread of the disease.

In the last week, 160,000 tests have been carried out in the area and almost 100,000 doors have been knocked on, she said.

Throughout the pandemic, falsehoods have spread quickly online across the world.

One prominent Australian conspiracy theorist, with 250,000 followers on Instagram alone, has made false claims about "contaminated test kits", while denying the pandemic exists.

Similarly, AFP fact-checkers have debunked several spurious claims that testing is an excuse to implant Bill Gates-funded "microchips" or that tests do not work.

Peru surpasses 10,000 deaths

Peru surpassed 10,000 deaths from the coronavirus on Thursday, the health ministry said, a day after the government began easing a national lockdown in a bid to revive the economy.

The number of deaths rose to 10,045, an increase of 185 in the last 24 hours, while the number of people infected rose to 292,004, the ministry said.

Peru is Latin America's second worst-hit country after Brazil, where according to official figures more than 60,000 people have died from the disease.

Peru's victims include 71 health workers and 153 police officers, according to officials.

Among the latest of Peru's victims is the leader of the Awajun indigenous people, Santiago Manuin, who died Wednesday aged 63.

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