Brazil virus toll hits 50,000 as Spain reopens borders

By: AFP      Published: 02:47 PM, 22 Jun, 2020
Brazil virus toll hits 50,000 as Spain reopens borders

Brazil registered its 50,000th death from the coronavirus outbreak on Sunday, underlining Latin America's desperate struggle to contain the disease, as Europe's gradual emergence from lockdown was marked by Spain reopening its borders.

Brazil is the second worst-affected country behind the United States, and the spread of COVID-19 is accelerating across Latin America, with Mexico, Peru and Chile also hard-hit as death tolls soar and healthcare facilities are pushed toward collapse.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who has been fiercely criticized for comparing the virus to a "little flu," argues the economic impact of shutdowns is often worse than the virus itself.

But Mexico City has delayed reopening markets, restaurants, malls, hotels and places of worship, with the country now recording over 20,000 COVID-19 deaths.

Highlighting the region's woes, Peru passed 8,000 deaths on Sunday despite preparing to reopen shopping malls on Monday.

In contrast, primary and secondary school children will return to class in France on Monday, and cinemas and theaters will also reopen.

One cinema in Paris opened just after midnight to mark the occasion, with audiences cheering the opening credits.

"We booked immediately. It's not our usual schedule, but it will create a nice memory after these difficult weeks," one cinema-goer named Loriane told AFP.

On Sunday, traffic flowed again across the Spain-France border in a watershed moment for the millions of businesses and workers across Europe who have suffered from the economic downturn.

"We wanted to be in Spain for the sun, the beach, tapas, and I'm already wearing my swimsuit under my clothes," said Frenchwoman Sylvia Faust, who crossed into Spain with her 17-year-old daughter.

- Spain welcomes tourists -

Clusters have also emerged in the Palestinian territories, Morocco and Iran, where officials have now registered more than 100 deaths a day for three days running. 

Beijing is also battling a new outbreak of over 200 cases. 

The authorities have taken more than two million test samples and banned imports of chicken from an American producer, suspecting the virus could have been in contaminated food.

COVID-19 has now killed more than 465,000 people and infected almost nine million worldwide.

Although the spread has slowed in Europe, it remains the worst-affected continent, with more than 2.5 million cases.

Spain has been among Europe's hardest-hit nations, but on Sunday it lifted a slew of restrictions in a bid to get its tourism industry back up and running. 

As well as opening its land border with France, Spain also welcomed EU nationals, those from the passport-free Schengen zone and Britons at seaports and airports -- without enforcing quarantine periods.

Around 100 flights from European countries landed at Spain's airports. 

"We must remain on our guard and strictly follow hygiene and protection measures," Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said on Saturday, stressing that the danger has not passed.

In the Netherlands, police clashed with protesters frustrated over the government's coronavirus response and made dozens of arrests in the center of The Hague.

Police said the protest, attended by hundreds, was peaceful until a group of football fans clashed with riot police at the nearby Central Station, throwing stones and bottles.

On Sunday, France celebrated its annual music festival marking the summer solstice, with bands playing in cafes, restaurants and on streets across the country.

In Germany, however, concert halls and other institutions still face an uncertain future, with social distancing rules forcing them to slash their events calendars and drastically reduce capacities. 

On the eastern fringes of Europe, cases have spiked again in Azerbaijan, forcing the government to institute another lockdown -- much to the irritation of workers.  

"The government again cages us in like zoo animals and gives not a damn for the consequences," taxi driver Shahin Mamedkuliyev told AFP.

Saudi Arabia on Sunday ended its coronavirus curfew, lifting restrictions on businesses including hair salons and cinemas, despite a spike in infections.

It also reopened its mosques in Mecca, Islam's holiest city, after a three-month shutdown.

But international flights and religious pilgrimages remain suspended, and the authorities have not yet said whether they will proceed with this year's hajj, scheduled for the end of July.

- Trump's testing boast -

The United States is the worst-hit country overall, with 119,000 deaths, but President Donald Trump held his first campaign rally in months on Saturday, inviting thousands to an arena in Oklahoma -- although there were many empty seats. 

"When you do testing... you will find more cases... so I said to my people, 'Slow the testing down,'" he told the crowd. The White House later said that Trump was joking.

The president is attempting to kickstart his campaign for re-election in November in the face of a tanking economy.

In one upbeat story from Latin America, an Argentine sailor took 85 days to cross the ocean from Portugal alone in his small sailboat to return home with his aging parents, arriving in time for Father's Day.

Scientists are still learning about the virus, its symptoms and the way it spreads -- and a vaccine still remains a distant possibility.

US adds 305 more deaths

The United States recorded another 305 coronavirus-related deaths in 24 hours, a tally by Johns Hopkins University showed Sunday at 8:30pm (0030 GMT Saturday).

It marked the 11th consecutive day in which the daily toll from the virus has been fewer than 1,000, and the third time the toll has been under 400 since the pandemic seemed to peak in mid-April.

But the US remains the country hardest-hit by the pandemic, with 119,959 deaths out of 2,278,373 official cases.

Some 20 states have seen a rebound in infections, as the epicenter of the country's outbreak has moved southwest from New York and the country's Northeast.

After dipping below 20,000 new daily confirmed cases recently, the figure has crept back up towards 30,000 and beyond in recent days.

There are fears of a second wave of COVID-19 infections following state reopenings and massive anti-racism protests around the country in recent weeks.

President Donald Trump's first campaign rally since the coronavirus crisis, held Saturday night in Oklahoma, was also criticized as a potential COVID-19 "superspreader" event.

Fears of second virus wave in Melbourne

Australians were warned Monday to avoid travelling to Melbourne, as the country's second-biggest city tightened coronavirus restrictions amid fears of a second wave of the epidemic.

Victoria state has recorded more than 110 cases in the past week -- many of them in Melbourne -- prompting leaders of other regions to warn against visiting the city's six designated virus "hot spots".

The premier of neighbouring New South Wales state, Gladys Berejiklian, said anyone intending to visit the city should "reconsider your plans".

"At this stage, the advice is do not travel to those hot spots," she told reporters in Sydney, which had been the epicentre of Australia's COVID-19 outbreak but has seen few new cases in recent weeks.

"We would recommend people not at this stage travel to Melbourne unless they have to," she said.

Officials in Victoria have stalled plans to allow increased numbers of diners in restaurants and cafes, and also reimposed tighter rules on gatherings in homes in response to the outbreak.

It was the first major back-pedal on easing restrictions, as the rest of the country continues to record low numbers of new cases and work to restart the economy.

Although numbers remain relatively low in Melbourne, a spike in the rate of community transmission -- those cases which authorities are unable to trace to the source -- has fuelled concerns it could get out of hand quickly.

The state's chief health officer, Brett Sutton, has blamed the rise on lockdown fatigue and complacency, saying the situation had now reached a "dangerous point" as there was "no Plan B".

"We are absolutely at risk of a second peak but we can get on top of it, and we must get on top of it," he told reporters Saturday.

Like the rest of the country, early restrictions on travel and gatherings successfully curbed the virus in Melbourne before last week.

The new clusters have emerged at Melbourne's Stamford Plaza Hotel, which is being used to quarantine citizens returning from overseas, an H&M clothing store in the city's north and within extended families in a couple of suburbs.

An Australian Rules football game in the city also had to be postponed after a player tested positive on the weekend.

Australia has recorded almost 7,500 cases of COVID-19 and 102 deaths, though some regions have already declared themselves virus-free.