Virus tamed in New Zealand, while Brazil emerges as hot spot
Wellington: Surfers in New Zealand hit the waves at dawn, builders returned to construction sites and baristas fired up their espresso machines as the nation eased a strict lockdown Tuesday amid hopeful signs the coronavirus has been all but vanquished Down Under — at least for now.
But elsewhere, Brazil was emerging as a potential new hot spot for infections, and fresh doubts were raised over whether Japan would be able to host the already postponed Olympic Games next year.
Europe and some U.S. states were also continuing to gradually ease limits on movement and commerce as they tried to restart their economies.
But in a reminder of the virus's increasing toll, President Donald Trump said the numbers of deaths could reach 70,000 in the U.S., after putting the number at 60,000 several times earlier this month.
With the number of new cases waning, New Zealand's government loosened its lockdown, which for more than a month had shuttered schools and most businesses, and only allowed people to leave their homes for essential work, to get groceries or to exercise.
Most students will continue studying from home and workers are still required to work from home if they can, while everyone is required to maintain social distancing. But restaurants can now reopen for takeaway orders, construction can restart, and golfers and surfers can play.
New Zealand reported just three new infections on Tuesday and the country's health authorities said they're winning the battle against the virus. Nevertheless they cautioned people not to get complacent and to maintain social distancing.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said people had done an incredible job to break the chain of transmission, but cautioned they needed to remain vigilant. Quoting a microbiologist, Ardern said "there may still be some smoldering ashes out there, and they have the potential to become a wildfire again, if we give them the chance."
In Australia, authorities reopened Sydney's iconic Bondi Beach to swimmers and surfers on Tuesday and hundreds returned to the water as soon as the restrictions were lifted. People can only use the beach during daylight hours, cannot linger on the sand and are counted to ensure social distancing.
In Japan, a top medical expert said he thinks it will be difficult to hold the Olympics in 2021 without an effective coronavirus vaccine.
"I hope vaccines and drugs will be developed as soon as possible," said Yoshitake Yokokura, the president of the Japan Medical Association.
Japan and the International Olympic Committee agreed to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games until July next year due to the pandemic. Japan is under a monthlong state of emergency amid a rapid increase of infections throughout the country, where hospitals are overburdened.
In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has insisted COVID-19 is just a "little flu" and that there is no need for the type of restrictions that have slowed the infection's spread in Europe and the U.S.
Brazil 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 without severe symptoms 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 victims are now dying at home. Brazil is Latin America's biggest country, with 211 million people.
"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 disputed the seriousness of the coronavirus and said people need to resume their lives to prevent an economic meltdown. But most state governors in the country have adopted restrictions to slow the spread and pushed people to stay at home.
In other developments, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson returned to work after a bout with the virus and warned strongly against easing his own country's lockdown too soon: "I refuse to throw away all the effort and the sacrifice of the British people and to risk a second major outbreak and huge loss of life."
And New York canceled its Democratic presidential primary, set for June 23, since Bernie Sanders has already conceded the nomination to Joe Biden. The state reported 337 deaths for the lowest daily count this month, down from nearly 800 almost three weeks ago.
The number of confirmed infections in the U.S. has risen to nearly 1 million, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University, although the true number is likely much higher because not everybody who contracts the virus is tested.
Worldwide, the death toll topped 210,000. The number of dead in the U.S. surpassed 56,000. Italy, Britain, Spain and France accounted for more than 20,000 deaths each.