Saturday, 23 October 2021

Health or wealth? Nations pressured to loosen virus rules

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Martin Meissner

MADRID: As the coronavirus pandemic throws millions out of work and devastates economies worldwide, governments are struggling with the delicate balance between keeping people safe from a highly contagious virus and making sure they can still make a living or even have enough to eat.

Workers in some nonessential industries were returning to their jobs Monday in Spain, one of the hardest-hit countries in the coronavirus pandemic, while in South Korea, officials were warning that hard-earned progress fighting the virus could be eroded by new infections as restrictions ease.

The decisions are complicated because each nation is on its own coronavirus arc, with places like Britain, Japan and parts of the United States still seeing increasing daily levels of deaths or infections; France and New York hoping they are stabilizing, albeit at a high plateau of deaths; and hard-hit nations like Italy and Spain seeing declines in the rates of increase.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said his government must balance its response to the virus crisis that “threatens to destroy lives and at the same time destroy the economic and social fabric of our country.”

Seeking to restart manufacturing, Spain’s government is allowing workers to return to some factory and construction jobs. Retail stores and services remain closed and office workers are strongly encouraged to keep working from home. A prohibition on people leaving home for anything other than groceries and medicine will remain for at least two weeks under the state of emergency.

‘’(Spain’s) economy is more vulnerable to the crisis since it relies on services like tourism that are severely harmed by the pandemic. That means it will likely have a deeper recession,” European Central Bank Vice President Luis de Guindos told Spain’s La Vanguardia newspaper.

Yet some health experts and politicians argue it’s premature to ease the lockdown in a nation that has suffered 17,489 deaths and reported 169,496 infections, second only to the United States’ 557,000 infections. But Spain on Monday reported its lowest daily growth in infections in three weeks.

Italy recorded its lowest daily virus death toll in three weeks at 431, putting its total deaths at over 19,800.

In Madrid, José Pardinas took a mask being handed out by police as he walked to work at a moving company that was re-starting operations after a three-week halt.

“The company hasn’t given us any protective equipment. I’m quite nervous about contracting the virus because my family can’t afford more time without an income,” Pardinas said.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, meanwhile, issued a global plea to the world’s richer countries and international financial institutions to provide debt-relief for poor countries, where forced lockdowns are crippling already troubled economies and causing widespread hunger for the poor.

His government has launched an ambitious $8 billion program to help the millions near the poverty level. Khan last week relaxed his country’s lockdown to allow the construction industry, which employs the vast majority of Pakistan’s daily wage earners, to re-open.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has urged a cautious approach to any loosening of restrictions, will hold a video conference with regional governors Wednesday, after the governor of the state with the most infections called for a “road map” to return to normality.

Armin Laschet, governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, said “the willingness for restrictions also needs the prospect of normalization.” His government came up with a plan for gradually easing the restrictions imposed on March 22, when public gatherings were limited to only two people.

In South Korea, Prime Minster Chung Sye-kyun said officials were discussing new public guidelines that would allow for “certain levels of economic and social activity” while also maintaining distance to slow the virus’ spread.

South Korea’s caseload has slowed from early March, when it was reporting around 500 new daily cases, but officials have warned of a broader “quiet spread″ at locations such as bars, which are still open. President Moon Jae-in vowed Monday to focus on saving jobs and protecting the economy amid a sharp increase in the number of people seeking unemployment benefits.

South Korea’s vice health minister, Kim Gang-lip, said a quick return to normality was “virtually impossible” considering the threat of new infections.

“A premature easing (of social distancing) would come at an irrevocable cost, so we should approach the issue very carefully, and invest deep thought into when and how to transition,” Kim said.

In Sri Lanka, the government announced plans to reopen schools and universities in May.

The pandemic’s new epicenter is now the United States, which has seen more than 22,000 deaths, the world’s highest. About half have been in the New York metropolitan area, but hospitalizations are slowing in the state and other indicators suggest lockdowns and social distancing are working.

U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said parts of the country could gradually reopen as early as next month.

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