WHO warns pandemic accelerating as infection tally zooms past 9 million
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WHO warns pandemic accelerating as infection tally zooms past 9 million

As countries lift lockdowns and social distancing measures, World Health Organization says politicization of disease exacerbating health crisis

People wait for their turn outside a bank in Islamabad on June 23, 2020, after the COVID-19 coronavirus cases continue to rise. (Farooq NAEEM / AFP)
People wait for their turn outside a bank in Islamabad on June 23, 2020, after the COVID-19 coronavirus cases continue to rise. (Farooq NAEEM / AFP)

With countries across the world continuing to ease lockdowns and reopen economies, global coronavirus infections topped 9 million Tuesday as the World Health Organization warned the pandemic was accelerating.

The global case tally was at over 9.15 million late Tuesday, according to a count kept by Johns Hopkins University. A separate tally tracked by the Worldometer website, put the number of infections at over 9.27 million.

Europe has steadily eased its travel lockdowns in recent weeks, and France on Monday took its biggest step back to normality by allowing millions of children to return to school.

But many parts of the world, including Latin America and South Asia, are only beginning to feel the full force of the pandemic, while other regions are being hit with second waves.

“The pandemic is still accelerating,” the WHO’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a virtual health forum organised in the United Arab Emirates.

Tedros said the greatest threat was not the virus itself, which has now killed over 470,000 people, but “the lack of global solidarity and global leadership.”

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, speaks during a news conference at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP, file)

“We cannot defeat this pandemic with a divided world,” he said. “The politicization of the pandemic has exacerbated it.”

Rapid increases in cases across the various parts of the United States are raising fears that progress against the virus is slipping away, as states reopen and many Americans resist wearing masks for political reasons, and refuse to limit contacts to social-distancing bubbles. The US has the most infections and deaths by far in the world, with 2.3 million cases and over 120,000 confirmed virus-related deaths, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

US President Donald Trump on Monday said the American toll could surpass 150,000, as two more members of his team that helped organize a controversial weekend rally for him in Oklahoma tested positive for coronavirus. The US president also said that he had asked officials to slow down testing because too many positive cases were turning up. Trump’s office later claimed he was joking.

India has been recording about 15,000 new infections each day, and some states Tuesday were considering fresh lockdown measures to try to halt the spread of the virus among the country’s 1.3 billion people. The government had lifted a nationwide lockdown to restart the ailing economy and give hope to millions of hungry, unemployed day laborers.

India’s huge virus caseload is highlighting the country’s unequal society, where private hospitals cater to the rich and public hospitals are so overwhelmed that many people fear to enter them.

Faithful sit on their two-wheelers and pray as they attend a drive-in mass in an open area of Bethel AG Church in Bengaluru, India, on June 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)

In Pakistan, the government is determined to buoy the frail economy by opening up the country even if overcrowded hospitals are turning away patients. New cases have also been rising steeply in Mexico, Colombia and Indonesia.

Mexico, Peru, Chile and Argentina are also coping with crises — Mexico City being forced to delay plans for a broad reopening of the economy as the country’s death toll raced past 20,000.

In an unprecedented move, Saudi Arabia said it would allow a “very limited” number of pilgrims to its annual hajj ritual, which last year drew 2.5 million pilgrims from around the world.

The hajj, a must for able-bodied Muslims at least once in their lifetime, represents a potentially major source of contagion.

Authorities said a hajj only involving pilgrims already in the kingdom would be permitted.

In Europe however, countries continued to ease their restrictions.

Thousands of French people danced and partied in the streets well into Monday for an annual music festival, in the first big blowout since the lockdown.

Many felt the authorities were too lax.

People take part in a march in memory of Steve Maia Canico, on June 21, 2020, in Nantes, western France, one year after the 24-year-old disappeared after falling into the Loire river following a police raid during France’s annual “Fete de la Musique” (Music Festival) (Sebastien SALOM-GOMIS / AFP)

“This is not what a gradual end to the lockdown looks like,” said Dr Gilbert Deray. “I understand that the Festival of Music is something of a liberation, but did we really have to have it this year?”

Swimming pools and cinemas also reopened, while children up to the age of 15 returned to school.

In England, authorities said cinemas, museums and galleries would reopen on July 4 in the next phase of easing lockdowns, as infection rates there also slow.

But illustrating the persisting risks, Portugal Prime Minister Antonio Costa said restrictions on gatherings of more than 10 people would be reimposed and cafes and shops ordered to close at 8:00 pm in Lisbon.

In Germany, more than 1,550 people have tested positive for coronavirus at the Toennies slaughterhouse in Rheda-Wiedenbrueck and thousands more workers and family members have been put under a quarantine to try to halt the outbreak.

On Tuesday, North Rhine-Westphalia state Gov. Armin Laschet said people in Guetersloh and parts of a neighboring county will now face the same restrictions that Germany saw in March and April, including curbs on social gatherings and bar closings.

“The purpose is to calm the situation, to expand testing to establish whether or not the virus has spread beyond the employees of Toennies,” Laschet said.

Wives and children of German businesspeople working in China walk through a terminal at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, on May 29, 2020. (AP/Michael Probst)

Laschet expressed frustration at the company’s handling of the outbreak, saying authorities had to order Toennies to release the names of its employees.

“The readiness to cooperate could have been greater,” he said.

German union officials have blamed poor working and living conditions that migrant workers faced under a loosely-regulated sub-contractor.

Australians were warned to avoid travelling to Melbourne, as the country’s second-biggest city tightened restrictions over fears of an upsurge in cases.

China, Germany, South Korea and Japan are also battling new outbreaks, with some reintroducing containment measures.

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