New Zealand eases lockdown as coronavirus tamed in Australasia

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New Zealand has eased a strict lockdown amid hopeful signs coronavirus (Covid-19) has been all but vanquished in Australasia for the moment.

But elsewhere, Brazil is emerging as a potential new hotspot for infections, and fresh doubts have been raised over whether Japan would be able to host the already postponed Olympic Games next year.

Europe and some US states are also continuing to gradually ease limits on movement and commerce as they try 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 US, 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 closed 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 people can play golf and go surfing.

New Zealand reported just three new infections on Tuesday and the country’s health authorities said they are winning the battle against the virus. Nevertheless, they cautioned people not to get complacent and to maintain social distancing.

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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 smouldering ashes out there, and they have the potential to become a wildfire again, if we give them the chance.”

In Australia, authorities have reopened Sydney’s Bondi Beach to swimmers and surfers 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 Games until July next year 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.

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 US.

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 have not sought hospital care.

Global coronavirus cases and deaths
(PA Graphics)

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 Brandao, a virologist at the University of Sao Paulo.

Bolsonaro has disputed the seriousness of 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.

Worldwide, the death toll has topped 210,000.

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