Coronavirus World Updates: Greece, Italy, China, Netherlands

Coronavirus World Updates: Greece, Italy, China, Netherlands

Greece braces for crowds as hundreds of beaches reopen.

Amid forecasts of record-breaking heat, Greece on Saturday opened hundreds of beaches, continuing the gradual lifting of restrictions imposed in March to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The move is “an important test that we must pass successfully,” a government spokesman, Stelios Petsas, said last week. “The whole world is watching Greece, which has so far shown an exemplary response to the pandemic,” he said, referring to the country’s early imposition of restrictions. The country has recorded 2,810 coronavirus cases and 160 deaths.

The opening came as temperatures were forecast to hit over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius) in Athens and about 106 Fahrenheit (41 Celsius) in the southern Peloponnese peninsula and other parts of the mainland. That would make it the hottest mid-May in 150 years, according to Greek meteorologists.

Television coverage showed beaches around Greece dotted with people on Saturday, with numbers expected to grow as temperatures rise throughout the day. In Glyfada, a coastal Athens suburb that draws large crowds in summer, managers of one beach used drones to ensure that people practiced social distancing.

A distance of about five feet between sun loungers is required at the beaches, and alcohol and music are banned. Employees must wear masks and gloves, and disinfect sun loungers and tables between uses. Beach managers faces fines of up to 20,000 euros (about $21,600) for violations, and closure for a month.

As the authorities prepare to reopen Greece’s crucial tourism sector, a ban on travel to the country’s islands is being gradually lifted, starting with ferry connections to Crete on Monday. Domestic flights will gradually resume from Monday, though restrictions on international routes remain in place.

A Chinese health official has suggested that some labs destroyed coronavirus samples in the early days of the outbreak, saying that such steps were required for biosafety reasons.

The official, Liu Dengfeng, said at a news briefing on Friday that Chinese law required labs not equipped to handle highly contagious specimens to destroy them to “prevent secondary disasters caused by unknown pathogens.”

Health officials had quickly labeled the coronavirus as “highly pathogenic” after beginning to investigate it in December, said Mr. Liu, a member of China’s National Health Commission.

“Chinese laws have strict requirements for the storage, destruction and study of highly pathogenic samples,” he said. “For laboratories that do not meet the storage standards, the samples should be destroyed or transferred to a professional depository.”

Mr. Liu did not say how those labs would have acquired samples in the first place.

The virus is believed to have emerged in a wet market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the outbreak was first detected. Two research labs in the city have been the focus of unproven theories about the outbreak’s origins, but both were high-level biosecurity sites. Mr. Liu did not specify details of any labs that may have destroyed samples.

Several world leaders have questioned China’s transparency and willingness to participate in international inquiries into the virus’s origins. U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have accused China of destroying lab samples when the virus emerged in order to try to conceal the outbreak.

Mr. Pompeo has also backed President Trump’s assertion that the coronavirus originated in a lab in Wuhan, though intelligence agencies say they have reached no conclusion on the issue.

Chinese officials have aggressively pushed back against the accusations.

Italy will lift travel restrictions beginning on June 3, under a decree adopted by the government on Saturday that will open the door to renewed tourism, one of the country’s hardest-hit sectors.

The measure, in a country that is emerging from one of Europe’s tightest coronavirus lockdowns, will permit freer movement by private and public transportation within the country’s regions.

If there are fresh outbreaks of the coronavirus, the government could reimpose restrictive measures, according to a statement. A 14-day quarantine will continue to be applied to people who have been in close contact with anyone infected by the virus.

On Monday, shops, bars, restaurants, hairdressers and other businesses will reopen, with stringent social distancing and hygiene rules. Regions are required to monitor their hospitals and the epidemiological situation on a daily basis, and group gatherings are still banned.

Religious services will also be allowed to restart on Monday, adhering to strict “protocols to prevent the risk of contagion,” the statement said. The easing of rules means that Mass will be again celebrated at St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, which underwent a thorough cleaning with disinfectant on Friday.

The Vatican’s spokesman, Matteo Bruni, said on Thursday that those participating in religious functions at St. Peter’s and at Rome’s three other papal basilicas would be subject to temperature checks.

Italy has been among the European countries hardest hit by the pandemic, with more than 220,000 confirmed cases and 31,600 deaths.

​Amazon has reached an agreement with unions in France to reopen its warehouses there after a lengthy battle over safety measures to protect workers against the coronavirus, capping the most prominent labor showdown the retailer has faced in the pandemic.

The company said late Friday that it was finalizing an accord with French unions and employee representatives that would pave the way for its six fulfillment centers in the country to resume operations starting on Tuesday.

Amazon closed the warehouses in mid-April and put 10,000 employees on paid furlough after unions sued, accusing the online giant of not taking adequate steps to protect workers from the coronavirus and of trying to sidestep the unions as they sought improved conditions.

French unions called the decision a victory for workers and said the resumption of activity would be gradual and voluntary, with half of workers returning from Tuesday to May 25 and the rest by June 2.

The reopening “is a positive step forward for French customers, for our French employees and for the many French S.M.E.s who rely on Amazon to grow their business,” Amazon said in a statement.

Thousands of children who beg in cities in northern Nigeria have been crammed into open trucks and driven across state borders back to their home villages despite a ban on interstate travel imposed in April, raising fears that the move could spread the coronavirus across Africa’s most populated country.

At least 2,000 of the children, who attended Quranic schools and were often sent out to beg in the streets, have been put into quarantine, according to local news reports. Many have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Last week, the governor of Kaduna State told a Nigerian television channel that 30,000 of the children, known as almajirai, had been repatriated to their home states from Kaduna alone.

“We didn’t take this decision because of Covid-19, but Covid-19 provided us with the opportunity because Covid-19 enables us to know where the almajiris are and to get them at one go,” said the governor, Nasir El-Rufai.

He added that northern governors had been determined to end the almajiri system for some time. Under the system, children as young as 5 can spend up to a decade in boardinghouses memorizing the Quran.

Millions of children are out of school in Nigeria, according to the United Nations children’s agency.

The Diamond Princess cruise ship, the site of a coronavirus outbreak among more than 700 passengers and crew members during a two-week quarantine in Japan in February, left Yokohama on Saturday after three months docked at the port.

The cruise ship has been disinfected and refurbished, which included replenishing mattresses, linens and room ornaments, according to its operator, Princess Cruises, a unit of Carnival Corporation. The ship is sailing for Malaysia.

At the time of the February quarantine, the Diamond Princess represented the largest concentration of coronavirus cases outside China, meriting its own category in data compiled by the World Health Organization. Fourteen people ultimately died from coronavirus contracted aboard the ship.

The United States and other countries evacuated their citizens from the ship during the quarantine, and Japan faced criticism for its handling of the outbreak.

This month, Princess announced that because of the pandemic it was extending a suspension of most of its cruises through the summer.

A sense of normalcy is beginning to return to the Netherlands: Schools have started reopening, people can have their hair cut — and single people are allowed to have sex again with people outside their homes.

Since countries locked down and advised people to keep a safe distance from one another, those who live alone or are single have largely relied on the internet for companionship and dating.

Acknowledging that human touch is important, the Dutch government this week decided to loosen its rules on sex in the pandemic, allowing a “sex buddy,” provided that the two parties are in strict agreement about trying to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

“Discuss together how to best do that,” the guidelines say. “Follow the rules around the new coronavirus.”

Initially, guidance from the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment instructed people to have sex only with their steady partners. The term “sex buddy” was removed from the website after drawing attention from the international news media.

Different places have taken varying approaches as the coronavirus has spread. In Denmark, sex has been allowed throughout the pandemic. And New York City issued guidance in March that advised avoiding sexual contact with people from other households.

“You are your safest sex partner,” the advice read.

U.K. psychiatrists forecast a ‘tsunami’ of mental health troubles.

With nearly half of Britain’s population experiencing “high” levels of anxiety during the pandemic, psychiatrists say that they have seen an increase in first-time emergency cases during the lockdown, and that a sudden drop in routine appointments makes them fear for a “tsunami of mental health after the pandemic.”

In a survey of over 1,300 mental health doctors across Britain, the Royal College of Psychiatrists wrote on Friday that nearly half had seen a drop-off in routine care. In particular, one psychiatrist wrote: “In old-age psychiatry, our patients appear to have evaporated. I think people are too fearful to seek help.”

As many nations have eased confinement rules but retain some forms of lockdown to stem the spread of the coronavirus, the World Health Organization’s director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has said that “mental health needs must be treated as a core element of our response to and recovery from” the pandemic.

Troubles include depression and various mental issues stemming from isolation and increased stress. The Center for Mental Health, a British independent charity, has forecast an increase in post-traumatic stress disorder. Britain has been one of the worst-hit European countries in the pandemic, with over 240,000 confirmed cases and more than 34,000 deaths as of Saturday.

“If the economic impact is similar to that of the post-2008 recession, then we could expect 500,000 additional people experiencing mental health problems,” the charity wrote.

As hundreds of children in Europe and North America have fallen ill with an inflammatory condition that is thought to be linked to the coronavirus, the World Health Organization on Saturday issued a preliminary definition of the sickness and guidelines for collecting information about it.

It described the condition as a “multisystem inflammatory disorder in children and adolescents,” with some symptoms similar to those of Kawasaki disease and toxic shock syndrome.

Relatively few children have required hospitalization or intensive care with Covid-19. But in recent weeks reports of dozens of hospitalizations have left the authorities struggling to understand the full scope of the coronavirus.

Citing an urgent need for standardized data about the children’s cases, the W.H.O. said that symptoms linked to the inflammatory condition included more than three days of fever, rashes, hypotension and cardiac dysfunction, coupled with signs of the virus.

In a study published in The Lancet on Wednesday, doctors in Italy said that they had treated 10 children with hyper-inflammatory symptoms similar to the Kawasaki disease from February to April, a rate 30 higher than is common.

Similar cases have been found in about 100 children in New York, and dozens of others in Britain, France and Spain. In Britain, at least one death has been attributed to the syndrome, and France reported its first such death this week.

Just before the coronavirus arrived in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi faced serious challenges, perhaps the biggest of his tenure.

Since then, as the world has been walloped by the coronavirus pandemic, many of these problems in India, especially the economic ones, have gotten worse. But once again, India has rallied around Mr. Modi, with recent opinion polls showing his already high approval ratings touching 80, even 90, percent.

Analysts say that Mr. Modi’s success may be durable.

His nationwide lockdown, which he dropped on the country with four hours’ notice, has been largely obeyed. He never played down the virus threat or said India had capabilities it did not. And unlike in the United States, where partisan politics has gummed up the response, analysts say Mr. Modi has worked well with state-level officials across India.

It has not been a spotless performance. Mr. Modi’s government was caught off guard by an exodus of migrant workers from India’s cities, making desperate and sometimes fatal journeys hundreds of miles home. (On Saturday, more than 20 migrants were killed in a truck crash as they traveled home.)

Many economists believe that an $260 billion relief package that he announced this week will hardly be enough.

On Saturday, soccer fans in the Faroe Islands will live the dream of millions of global sports fans who have lived under weeks of lockdowns when they return to stadiums to watch a game.

The move comes after the self-governing archipelago, which is part of Denmark, quashed an outbreak of the coronavirus, prompting the local government to allow spectators to begin attending the national soccer league’s second round.

After the coronavirus arrived, the North Atlantic nation closed schools and put in place an expansive testing regime. The Faroe Islands have registered no new coronavirus cases since April 25.

In Germany, meanwhile, the nation’s soccer league is entering uncharted territory. It has been 65 days since the Bundesliga went into hibernation, and on Saturday afternoon it returned — though to stadiums empty of fans.

Many in Germany, including some fan groups, believe that the Bundesliga has hurried back with money as its only motivation. By returning, it has turned a problem into an opportunity, having long sought to end the primacy of England’s Premier League in soccer’s global landscape.

But the return is also down to a broader political reality.

“We can be the first to start again because of our health care system,” said Simon Rolfes, Leverkusen’s sporting director. “We are thankful to have the opportunity.”

The number of new confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States has steadily declined in recent days, but that progress is tenuous and uncertain.

Only about 3 percent of the population has been tested. More than 20,000 new cases are identified most days. And almost every day this past week, more than 1,000 Americans died from the virus. The total death toll is now over 87,000.

That has left the nation at a perilous moment, beginning to reopen businesses and ease social distancing measures despite the risk of a resurgence.

“We’re seeing a decline — undoubtedly, that is something good to see,” said Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University. “But what we are also seeing is a lot of places right on the edge of controlling the disease.”

Reopenings might ease the nation’s intense economic pain: More than 36 million people have filed unemployment claims in the past two months, and on Friday the Commerce Department reported that retail sales had fallen a record 16.4 percent in April.

A divided House narrowly passed a $3 trillion pandemic relief package on Friday, including aid for state and local governments and another round of $1,200 payments to taxpayers, but Republican opposition has been near-unanimous and the bill stands little chance of becoming law.

Here’s what else is happening in the U.S.:

  • Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Friday that opening New York City’s 14 miles of public beaches was “not in the cards” by the Memorial Day holiday next weekend, when they have traditionally opened for swimming. He said they would remain closed until officials were confident that the beaches could be used without a serious risk of spreading the coronavirus.

  • Former President Barack Obama is set to give two virtual commencement speeches to graduating college and high school seniors on Saturday in his first public addresses to a national audience during the pandemic.

Reporting was contributed by Liz Alderman, Hannah Beech, Julie Bosman, Chris Buckley, Ben Casselman, Jeffrey Gettleman, Amy Harmon, Miriam Jordan, Niki Kitsantonis, Ruth Maclean, Sapna Maheshwari, Claire Moses, Steven Lee Myers, Elian Peltier, Elisabetta Povoledo, Motoko Rich, Martin Selsoe Sorensen, Mitch Smith, Rory Smith, Amanda Taub, Vivian Wang and Sameer Yasir.


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