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China coronavirus epicenter to open up as world locks down

LONDON: A deserted Westminster Bridge is pictured looking north around in central London as governments scramble to defend their own economies against the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic in order to ward off a long-term global recession and future waves of infections. – AFP

BEIJING: China announced yesterday an end to travel curbs at the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, as governments around the world tightened lockdowns affecting 1.7 billion people in a desperate effort to slow the spread of the deadly disease. Hubei province, where the novel coronavirus emerged late last year, will allow healthy residents to travel from midnight, officials said, two months after they were ordered to stay indoors.

The relaxation of rules, which will not apply to the hardest-hit city of Wuhan until April 8, comes as Britain and New Zealand joined nations in Europe, the Middle East, North America and Asia in declaring countrywide lockdowns in a bid to staunch the flow of new infections. The extraordinary measures around the world continued to throw up horrifying tales; soldiers in Spain tasked with fighting the outbreak reported finding abandoned elderly people-some dead-at retirement homes.

And on the deserted streets of New York, one psychologist who ventured out voiced fears over the long-term mental health of everyone affected. “I’m scared for me and patients that this could go on” for months, said Lauren, who declined to give her surname. Anxiety and depression “all gets heightened at a time like this,” she added. The financial impact of economies grinding to a halt continued to unnerve policymakers, who opened the spigots and flooded the markets with yet more cash-their latest effort to keep the wheels turning.

In the United States, the Federal Reserve unveiled an unprecedented bond-buying program, in a move not seen since the global financial crisis more than a decade ago. The Fed, which has already slashed interest rates to record lows, said it will buy unlimited amounts of Treasury debt and take steps to lend directly to small and medium-sized firms hammered by state lockdowns across the country.

Asian markets cheered the news, with Tokyo, Hong Kong and Seoul rocketing in their latest rollercoaster session. That upswing came despite US politicians’ failure to sign off on a nearly $2 trillion package that President Donald Trump says is aimed at supporting ailing enterprises, and helicoptering cash to American families. His opponents say the bill is too heavily weighted to bailing out big business.

The British government, which has faced accusations it dithered over the health crisis and needlessly allowed schools to remain open far longer than European counterparts, came into line on Monday. Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered a three-week shutdown of “non-essential” shops and services and banned gatherings of more than two people. “Stay at home,” Johnson said in a televised address, as he unveiled unprecedented peacetime measures.

The announcement came after crowds of people were seen enjoying weekend sunshine in parks and countryside, prompting calls for tougher action. World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that the global pandemic was clearly accelerating. The number of coronavirus deaths has topped 16,200, with more than 360,000 declared infections in 174 countries and territories, according to an AFP tally. Tedros said it took 67 days from the beginning of the outbreak in China in December for the virus to infect the first 100,000 people worldwide.

In comparison, it required only 11 days for the second 100,000 cases and just four days for the third 100,000, he said. Tedros acknowledged that many countries were struggling to take more aggressive measures because of a lack of resources but said “we are not helpless bystanders. “We can change the trajectory of this pandemic,” he said. There was a glimmer of hope Monday in figures from Italy, the European ground zero of COVID-19. New infections in the continent’s hardest-hit country dipped to just shy of 5,000, down from over 6,500 on Saturday.

Its daily death toll also fell slightly, although cumulatively the country has recorded more than 6,000 fatalities, far-exceeding even that of China. In the United States, New York city was under lockdown, with its usual logjam commute now just a trickle of pharmacists, grocery store workers and medical staff. But Trump-who faces re-election in November and is keen to avoid extended economic damage in the US-told reporters he would soon be “opening up our country to business because our country was meant to be open.”

China’s authoritarian government has trumpeted its response to the crisis since doctors began to get a handle on cases of COVID-19, and yesterday state media proudly reported that a popular section of the Great Wall would re-open. Visitors have to wear a mask and stay a metre from everyone else, media said. Overall, China had 78 new infections yesterday, the vast majority brought in from overseas.

Meanwhile pressure was growing on the International Olympic Committee to speed up its decision about postponing the Tokyo Games as athletes criticized the four-week deadline and the United States joined calls to delay the competition. A growing group of national Olympic committees and sports bodies including World Athletics have called for the Games, set to start on July 24, to be pushed back, an outcome that now appears inevitable. – AFP

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