A host of countries around the world that were hailed for their responses to the coronavirus pandemic are now dealing with new outbreaks of COVID-19, calling into question their early successes and moves to reopen their economies.
Vietnam and Australia, which were praised for taking severe early steps to block the virus’ spread, are dealing with notable new outbreaks. In Europe, Spain and other EU countries that outpaced the U.S. in flattening the curve of COVID-19 cases this summer are facing pressure to clamp down again as they tentatively reopen public life.
“Contagion has fallen, but the numbers show that the virus continues to circulate, giving rise to outbreaks at local level, which have been identified and contained,” Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told lawmakers in Rome on Tuesday as he announced that the country’s COVID-19 state of emergency would be extended into October.
“The international situation remains worrying, and what is happening in countries close to us obliges us to be watchful,” Mr. Conte said.
Japanese health officials are pressing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to consider reinstating tougher measures as the country experiences its worst infection rates since mid-April. They say it is far too early to declare victory.
“If the situation changes, the government may change its approach, and it’s vital to explain to the public the rationale behind any twists in its response to the pandemic,” Shigeru Omi, who heads a government subcommittee on COVID-19 measures, told the NHK network.
Over 16.5 million people around the world have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker. Of those, 655,300 have died as of Tuesday evening and 9.6 million have recovered.
The U.S. leads the case number statistics by a wide margin, having reported over 4.3 million cases and 148,298 deaths. These numbers are nearly double those in Brazil, which has reported the second-highest number of cases at 2.4 million.
Critics of the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus outbreak have repeatedly pointed to other governments that apparently proved far more effective in keeping infection rates and death totals low.
But the persistence of the virus and the rising fear of complacency in some capitals are forcing another look at the supposed success stories.
Despite an extended travel ban on the U.S. and other COVID-19 hot spots, European countries such as Spain, Germany, Belgium and the United Kingdom are reporting new increases in cases. They began to tentatively reopen their economies and cities weeks ago after claiming to have a hold on the outbreaks.
Germany’s foreign ministry issued a notice Tuesday cautioning against travel to three regions in Spain because of “renewed high levels of infections and local lockdowns.”
Spain emerged as an early epicenter of COVID-19. It has reported 278,782 confirmed cases, 28,434 deaths and 150,376 recoveries. In June, it ended a state of emergency that had been declared because of the pandemic.
About the same time, Germany lifted its travel warning for the popular tourist destination after showing a decline in infections, but Spain has reported a spike in infection rates in the northern regions of Catalonia, Aragon and Navarre.
Catalonia’s government rejected Germany’s advisory and said it is “responsible” and “working to protect the life and health of people who live here or are visiting us.” Aragon’s regional office called the recommendation “discriminatory.”
Germany is facing its own struggles to contain a recent surge in new cases.
The country received international praise for its quick response to the health crisis and the relatively low death toll for its large population. However, Germany has reported over 3,600 coronavirus infections in the past week.
The head of Germany’s public health system said Tuesday that he is “very concerned” about the rising statistics.
“The rise has to do with the fact that we have become negligent,” Lothar Wieler, head of Germany’s Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases, told reporters.
“The new developments in Germany make me very worried,” he said. He urged people to abide by social distancing rules.
Summer travelers quickly took advantage of Europe’s reopening of borders, a move experts fear will cause a second wave of COVID-19.
“It is irrelevant if you are on holiday or at home,” Mr. Wieler said. “The holiday is as much a part of the precautions against the spread of COVID-19 as your work and home life. The setting is irrelevant.”
Asia on edge
In Asia, several countries that appeared to have a handle on the virus are returning to a state of lockdown after new cases spiked.
Vietnamese authorities this week rushed to evacuate 80,000 people, mostly local tourists, from its popular tourist destination of Da Nang after three residents tested positive for COVID-19.
The latest outbreak marks the first time in 100 days that Vietnam has recorded its first locally transmitted COVID-19 case.
Vietnam has also been hailed for implementing an aggressive strategy, including early testing and quarantining for travelers, to curb the virus’ spread. The country sealed off most of its borders to foreign travelers in March and still does not allow most international visitors.
Life has begun to return to normal in China, where the outbreak began late last year, but authorities have declared a “wartime” state in the northwestern region of Xinjiang and a lockdown after 47 new cases were found in one week in Urumqi. Before the current outbreak, the city had not reported any COVID-19 cases in almost five months, health authorities said.
Australian officials are fighting a particularly virulent wave of infections in Melbourne and have issued orders for a second lockdown after a new outbreak in its suburban regions.
Countries whose leaders decided to fight the pandemic their own way or denied that the coronavirus represented a threat are also being forced to recalculate.
North Korea, whose claims that it did not have a single COVID-19 case were widely disbelieved by epidemiologists, has just acknowledged its first case. The regime in Pyongyang blamed the transmission on a defector who had been in South Korea but returned home.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un convened an emergency meeting of government experts over the weekend. Outside experts warned that a major outbreak could easily overwhelm the North’s bare-bones health care system.
Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian leader of Belarus, has likewise resisted the need for a strict response and has suggested that drinking vodka, using a sauna and playing ice hockey can curb the outbreak.
But Mr. Lukashenko’s suggestions appear to have failed him as he acknowledged Tuesday that he had been infected with the coronavirus and has since recovered.
“Today you are meeting a man who managed to survive the coronavirus on his feet,” he said. “This is what doctors concluded yesterday. Asymptomatic,” he said.
He added that 97% of the Belarusian population carries the virus asymptomatically, though he didn’t provide a source for the statistic.
As countries struggle to end COVID-19 outbreaks within their borders, the World Health Organization warned Tuesday that it was no time for any nation — regardless of the severity of their outbreaks — to be complacent.
“It’s going to go up and down a bit,” WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris told reporters.
“What we all need to get our heads around is this is a new virus and … this one is behaving differently,” she said. “The best thing is to flatten it and turn it into just something lapping at your feet.”
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