PARIS (AP): France and Spain, two of the worst-hit countries in the coronavirus pandemic, were laying out separate roadmaps on Tuesday for lifting their lockdowns, while signs emerged the virus has been all but vanquished in New Zealand and Australia.
But on the other side of the globe, Brazil is emerging as a new hotspot for infections. And new doubts were raised over whether Japan would be able to host the already postponed Summer Olympics next year without the development of a vaccine.
In Europe and elsewhere, the key question of when to reopen schools loomed as nations seek to ease lockdowns and restart their battered economies.
Although the coronavirus seems to affect children far less seriously than adults, many officials, teachers and parents are concerned about the health risks that school openings pose. Some point to the difficulties of ensuring that children stick to social distancing and frequent hand washing, and teachers themselves fear risks to their own health.
But many parents would struggle to return to work without schools being open, hampering efforts to restart the economy.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron wants schools to start reopening on May 11, but teachers, parents and even some mayors are raising alarms. The government says it will be up to parents to decide whether to send children back to class, with details expected to be released by the prime minister later on Tuesday.
Joel Wilmotte is among a growing number of French mayors refusing to reopen their schools, at least for now.
“I am not against the reopening of schools,” he said in a video on the Facebook page of his northern town of Hautmont. But he listed seven reasons why he’s not ready to do so.
Among them: Teachers don’t know how to make sure every child respects protective gestures and a poll suggests most French parents oppose school reopening. Cleaning staff are afraid and under-equipped to do constant disinfections.
So Wilmotte said he’s keeping the six schools in his town closed “until further notice”.
Greece, which so far has managed to keep its coronavirus death toll low, at 136 people, was also releasing more lockdown easing details on Tuesday but the issue of schools remained tricky.
Schools will be reopened “gradually, with conditions” and subject to constant review, said the Greek Health Ministry’s virus spokesman, infectious diseases specialist Sotiris Tsiodras. The team of experts he is on has not recommended a date.
Scientists agree that children are less at risk from the virus and appear to transmit it less than adults, said Tsiodras, a father of seven. “This is not an experiment where we want something bad to happen to our children. It is a scientific proposal. We propose, the state will decide.”
In the United States, which has the world’s highest death toll at more than 56,000, President Donald Trump said states should “seriously consider” reopening their public schools before the end of the academic year, even though dozens already have said it would be unsafe for students to return until the summer or fall.
“Some of you might start thinking about school openings, because a lot of people are wanting to have the school openings. It’s not a big subject, young children have done very well in this disaster that we’ve all gone through,” Trump said.
Trump also admitted the number of virus deaths could reach 70,000 in the US, after citing 60,000 several times this month.
The number of confirmed infections in the US has risen to nearly 1 million and the confirmed death worldwide topped 211,000, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. The true toll of the pandemic is likely much higher because of limited testing, mild cases that are missed, flaws in counting the dead and governments that may be trying to conceal the extent of their outbreaks.
Italy, Spain, France and Britain accounted for more than 21,000 virus-related deaths each.
In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has insisted that Covid-19 is just a “little flu” and there is no need for the type of restrictions that have slowed the infection’s spread in Europe and the US but upended their economies.
Brazil, Latin America’s most populous country with 211 million people, has reported 4,600 deaths and 67,000 confirmed infections. But the true numbers are believed to be vastly higher given the lack of testing and the many people who haven’t sought hospital care.
Medical officials in Rio de Janeiro and at least four other major cities have warned that their hospital systems are on the verge of collapse or are too overwhelmed to take any more patients. There are also signs that a growing number of Brazilian victims are dying at home.
“We have all the conditions here for the pandemic to become much more serious,” said Paulo Brandão, a virologist at the University of Sao Paulo.
Bolsonaro has said Brazilians need to resume their lives to prevent an economic meltdown but most state governors have adopted restrictions to keep people home and slow the spread of the virus.
New Zealand reported just three new infections on Tuesday. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said people had done an incredible job of breaking the chain of transmission but cautioned they needed to remain vigilant.
“There may still be some smouldering ashes out there, and they have the potential to become a wildfire again, if we give them the chance,” she said, quoting a microbiologist.
Her government loosened its lockdown, which had shuttered schools and most businesses. Surfers hit the waves at dawn, builders returned to construction sites and baristas fired up espresso machines. Most students will still keep studying at home, employees must work from home if possible and everyone is required to maintain social distancing.
In Australia, authorities reopened Sydney’s iconic Bondi Beach to swimmers and surfers on Tuesday and hundreds of people returned to the water. People can only use the beach during daylight, cannot linger and are limited to ensure social distancing. Australia has only 83 confirmed virus deaths, less than the death tolls in at least half of the US states.
But in Japan, a top medical expert said he thinks it will be difficult to hold the rescheduled Summer Olympics even in 2021 without an effective coronavirus vaccine.
“I hope vaccines and drugs will be developed as soon as possible,” said Yoshitake Yokokura, president of the Japan Medical Association.
Japan and the International Olympic Committee agreed to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games until July 2021 due to the pandemic. Japan is under a month-long state of emergency amid a rapid increase of infections throughout the country, where hospitals are overburdened.