WHO warns that 1st wave of pandemic not over; dampens hopes

Menelaos Hadjicostis and Elaine Kurtenbach
Associated Press
Crosses mark the graves of those who have passed away since early April, filling a new section of the Nossa Senhora Aparecida public cemetery amid the new coronavirus pandemic in Manaus, Brazil, Sunday, May 16, 2020. The new area was opened last month to cope with a sudden surge in deaths in the city, though most of the deceased were not tested for COVID-19. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

BANGKOK – As Brazil and India struggle with surging coronavirus cases, a top health expert is warning that the world is still smack in the middle of the pandemic, dampening hopes for a speedy global economic rebound and renewed international travel.

“Right now, we’re not in the second wave. We’re right in the middle of the first wave globally,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, the World Health Organization’s executive director.

“We’re still very much in a phase where the disease is actually on the way up,” Ryan told reporters, pointing to South America, South Asia and other areas where infections are still on the rise.

India saw a record single-day jump in new cases for the seventh straight day. It reported 6,535 new infections Tuesday, raising its total to 145,380, including 4,167 deaths.

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The virus has taken hold in some of India’s poorest, most densely populated areas, underscoring the challenges that authorities face in curbing the spread of a virus for which a vaccine or cure isn’t yet in sight.

Most of India’s cases are concentrated in the western states of Maharashtra, home to the financial hub of Mumbai, and Gujarat. Infections have also climbed in the east as migrant workers stranded by lockdowns returned to their native villages from India’s largest cities.

A woman wears a facemask to protect against the new coronavirus as she rides an escalator at a subway station in Beijing, Tuesday, May 26, 2020. With declining virus case numbers, students have gradually returned to class and some international schools in Beijing are preparing to reopen on June 1. China's ceremonial parliament is meeting this week, with social distancing and other anti-virus measures being used. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

Despite this, India allowed domestic flights to resume Monday following a two-month hiatus, but at a fraction of normal traffic levels.

WHO poured cold water on Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s hopes of quickly re-opening the economy, warning that authorities must first have enough testing in place to control the spread of the virus. Brazil has 375,000 coronavirus infections – second only to the 1.6 million cases in the U.S. – and has counted over 23,000 deaths but many fear Brazil’s true toll is much higher.

Ryan said Brazil’s “intense” transmission rates means it should keep some stay-at-home measures in place, regardless of the negative impacts on its economy.

“You must continue to do everything you can,” he said.

But Sao Paulo Gov. João Doria has ruled out a full lockdown in Brazil’s largest state economy and plans to start loosening restrictions on June 1.

A U.S. travel ban was taking effect Tuesday for foreigners coming from Brazil, moved up two days earlier than its original date. It does not apply to U.S. citizens.

In Europe, Russia reported a record daily spike Tuesday of 174 deaths, bringing the country’s confirmed death toll to 3,807. Russia’s coronavirus caseload surpassed 360,000 – the third highest in the world – with almost 9,000 new infections registered.

Condensation fills the face shield of a police trainee during a simulation exercise for proper social distancing at the LRT-2 station on Tuesday, May 26, 2020 in Manila, Philippines. The exercise is held to prepare for the possible resumption of public transportation as the community lockdown to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus might be more relaxed next week. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

The country’s comparatively low mortality rate has raised questions among experts. Russian officials, however, vehemently deny manipulating any figures and attribute the low numbers to the effectiveness of the country’s lockdown measures.

The question of who can travel where and when remains a dilemma that officials still have yet to solve.

Spain’s foreign minister said Tuesday that European Union members should commonly agree to open borders and jointly determine which non-EU countries are designated as safe for travel. Arancha González Laya told Cadena SER radio that resuming cross-border travel should be decided collectively even if countries in the 27-nation bloc are phasing out lockdowns at different dates.

“We have to start working with our European partners to retake the freedom of movement in European territories,” she said.

Spain is eager to welcome tourists to shore up an industry that accounts for 12% of the country’s GDP.

Aiming to entice travelers, Greek authorities will introduce cheaper tickets for sea travel from the mainland to Greek islands on June 1.

The Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia have struck a deal to open their borders for 48 hours of travel without quarantines among their citizens starting Wednesday. And Montenegro, which declared itself “virus-free” will open its border to nine countries but not Serbia – earning strong criticism from Serbian officials.

Indonesia said it will deploy 340,000 security forces in 25 cities to enforce health protocols as the world’s fourth most populous nation prepares to reopen shopping centers and other businesses in the capital Jakarta on June 4.

“We want to get into a new normal and enter a new order,” Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo after inspecting moves to reopen Jakarta’s subway and a shopping mall in Bekasi.

South Korea on Tuesday began requiring people to wear masks on public transit and in taxis. The country is tracing dozens of infections linked to nightclubs and other venues as it prepares for 2.4 million students to return to school on Wednesday.

South Korea’s Health Ministry said beginning in June “high-risk” businesses such as bars, nightclubs, gyms, karaoke rooms and concert halls will be required to use QR codes to register customers so they could be found more easily when infections occur. But rights groups including privacy watchdog Jinbo Net called the move excessive.

“That’s exactly how we step into a surveillance state,” they said in a statement.

Estonia, a country known for its high-tech approach, has started a trial using a mobile phone and online app that shares a person’s health data. The app dubbed ImmunityPass generates a temporary QR-code that can be shared with others to demonstrate that someone is virus free.

On the medical front, WHO said it will temporarily drop hydroxychloroquine – the malaria drug U.S. President Donald Trump said he is taking – from its global study into experimental COVID-19 treatments. The announcement came after a paper in the Lancet showed that people taking the drug were at higher risk of death and heart problems.

Still, several countries in Europe and North Africa are using chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 patients.

Other treatments in the WHO study, including the experimental drug remdesivir and an HIV combination therapy, are still being pursued.

Britain’s medicines agency said Tuesday it has authorized the use of remdesivir to treat adults and teenagers hospitalized with severe COVID-19.

Clinical trials testing the antiviral are still under way globally, but initial results have suggested it can speed up the recovery time for people infected with the new coronavirus.

Seven public media outlets from the United States, Europe, Canada, Japan and Australia said they would work to beat back “the proliferation, particularly on social networks, of fake news about” COVID-19.

The broadcasters include France Médias Monde, Deutsche Welle, the BBC World Service, NHK World, CBC Radio-Canada, ABC Australia and the U.S. Agency for Global Media, whose networks include Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.

Worldwide, the virus has infected nearly 5.5 million people, killing over 346,000, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University. Europe has had about 170,000 deaths and the U.S. has seen nearly 100,000. Experts say the tally understates the real effects of the pandemic due to counting issues in many nations.