Virus warnings for Ramadan as some pandemic shutdowns ease
BANGKOK: The world inched toward a new phase in the coronavirus crisis on Thursday, as some countries like Vietnam and New Zealand with few new cases moved toward ending their pandemic shutdowns while others like Singapore and Japan were doubling down on measures to prevent a surge in infections.
Like the US, many countries are moving from crisis mode to figuring out how to live with the virus by modifying pre-pandemic routines with precautions, more testing and containment of flare-ups, mindful of the potential for future waves of the virus.
Authorities in the capital of Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim majority nation, extended to May 22 strict disease-fighting restrictions with the approach of the month-long Ramadan fasting season, which begins with the new moon this week.
With traditional, communal meals for the poor, large fast-breaking dinners with family and friends and cultural events after sunset cancelled, the world's 1.8 billion Muslims find themselves cut off from much of what makes the month special as authorities fight the pandemic.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged Muslims to "focus on our common enemy — the virus," and repeated an earlier appeal for an immediate cease-fire for all conflicts. In a separate message, he urged countries to provide equitable help to all, saying the pandemic was "a human crisis that is fast becoming a human rights crisis."
Some leaders are using the crisis as a pretext for repressive measures, Guterres said. "The message is clear: People — and their rights — must be front and centre," he said.
The United Nations has warned that tens of millions of people risk starvation as the coronavirus pandemic, a plague of locusts in Africa and other disruptions prevent food from reaching the world's most vulnerable populations in places like Yemen and South Sudan.
A report released Wednesday estimated that at least 135 million people are at acute risk of starvation due to conflicts and other factors. The report was compiled before shutdowns, border closures and freezes on transport activities began disrupting food supplies.
In response, the EU pledged 20 billion euros ($22 billion) for helping bridge such disruptions to provide help to vulnerable communities in Africa, the Balkans, the Middle East, parts of Asia and Latin America.
While some parts of the world are just beginning to grapple with the pandemic, in China authorities reported no new deaths and just 10 new cases on Thursday. The number of people hospitalized dropped to 959, with 63 considered serious cases.
As new cases drop close to zero, China has re-opened many businesses. Middle and high school seniors preparing for exams are returning to classes. But a ban on foreign arrivals and strict quarantine measures remain in place to prevent an influx of new cases from abroad or fresh infections among those thought to have recovered or who had no symptoms but could still be spreading the virus.
Neighbouring Vietnam, which moved quickly to close its borders and trace coronavirus cases, has reported no new cases in the past three days and is preparing to loosen restrictions.
New Zealand, which announced just three new cases of the coronavirus on Thursday, remained on strict lockdown, with 1,451 confirmed cases and 16 deaths, but was preparing to ease limits next month.
But the virus continues to pop up unexpectedly.
Singapore has been reporting hundreds of new cases each day, many traced to crowded migrant worker dormitories.
Japanese officials said Thursday that 14 more crew members on an Italian-operated cruise ship docked in southern Japan tested positive for the coronavirus, raising the breakout on board to 48.
The Costa Atlantica has been docked in Nagasaki with 623 crew members and no passengers since late January for repairs and maintenance. One crew member is hospitalized and on a ventilator, Nagasaki officials said.
Other infected crew members are quarantined in single rooms, and officials planned to test all by Friday. Officials are investigating how the virus could have got on board after discovering the first known case in a crew member who tested positive after developing a cough and fever.
An earlier outbreak aboard the US-operated Diamond Princess cruise ship, which was quarantined offshore of Yokohama for weeks, resulted in more than 700 cases among its 3,700 passengers and crew. Separately, Japan has about 12,000 cases, with 300 deaths.
The global outbreak of coronavirus has infected more than 2.6 million people and killed about 183,000, including more than 45,000 in the United States, according to a tally compiled by John Hopkins University from official government figures.
The true numbers are believed to be far higher, and most people infected suffer from only mild or moderate symptoms and survive.
But the crushing death toll of the pandemic has left many people understandably cautious and it will likely take weeks, even months, for people to regain confidence and resume normal activities. Future waves of outbreaks could reverse any gains in the interim, Dr Robert Blendon, a Harvard professor of health policy and political analysis said.
As President Donald Trump shifts to what White House officials call a new chapter in the response, officials face a challenge in reassuring the public while ensuring enough precautions are taken as communities emerge from shutdowns to prevent fresh onslaughts of cases.
"People will watch the cases and listen to the major public health leaders, and if there's a conflict, that will slow things even greater," Blendon said.