Germany surge sounds coronavirus alarm as world takes steps to reopen

BERLIN/PARIS (Reuters) – Germany reported on Monday that new coronavirus infections were accelerating exponentially after early steps to ease its lockdown, news that sounded a global alarm even as businesses opened from Paris hair salons to Shanghai Disneyland.

Germany’s Robert Koch Institute reported that the “reproduction rate” – the number of people each person infected with the coronavirus goes on to infect – had risen to 1.1. Any rate above 1 means the virus is spreading exponentially.

German authorities had taken early steps to ease lockdown measures just days earlier, a stark illustration that progress can swiftly be reversed even in a country with one of the best records in Europe of containing the virus so far.

It follows a new outbreak in night clubs in South Korea, another country that had succeeded in limiting infections.

Governments around the world are struggling with the question of how to reopen their economies while still containing the coronavirus. In Europe, the world’s worst-hit continent, Spain and France began major steps to ease lockdowns, while Britain announced more cautious moves.

Traffic flowed along the Champs Elysees in Paris, a giant tricolore flag billowing under the Arc de Triomphe, as workers cleaned shop-front windows to reopen.

“Everyone’s a little bit nervous. Wow! We don’t know where we’re headed but we’re off,” said Marc Mauny, a hair stylist who opened his salon in western France at the stroke of midnight when new rules took effect.

Mickey Mouse welcomed thinned-out crowds in Shanghai, the first Disney theme park to re-open, with a strict limit on the number of tickets. Parades and fireworks were cancelled, and workers and guests were required to wear face masks and have their temperatures screened at the entrance.

“I think (these measures) make tourists feel at ease,” said Kay Yu, a 29-year-old pass holder wearing a Minnie Mouse hat, who said he had woken up at 4 a.m. to make the trip to the park.

“IT’S NOT OVER UNTIL IT’S OVER”

A German health ministry spokesman said the authorities were taking the rise in the infection rate seriously and it did not mean the outbreak was out of control.

Karl Lauterbach, a Social Democrat lawmaker and professor of epidemiology, had warned that the virus could start spreading again quickly after seeing large crowds outside on Saturday in his home city of Cologne.

“It has to be expected that the R rate will go over 1 and we will return to exponential growth,” Lauterbach said in a tweet. “The loosening measures were far too poorly prepared.”

In South Korea, which largely avoided a lockdown by implementing a massive testing and contact-tracing programme early on, authorities were rushing to contain a new outbreak traced to night clubs.

“It’s not over until it’s over. While keeping enhanced alertness till the end, we must never lower our guard regarding epidemic prevention,” President Moon Jae-In said on Sunday.

New Zealand, which had success in fighting infection with one of the toughest and earliest lockdowns, said it would open malls, cafes and cinemas this week.

“The upshot is that in 10 days’ time we will have reopened most businesses in New Zealand, and sooner than many other countries around the world,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told a news conference. “But that fits with our plan – go hard, go early – so we can get our economy moving again sooner.”

But some of the countries and territories that were taking steps to open up their economies were acting without yet reporting sustained falls in the spread.

India, which has locked down its population of 1.3 billion people since March, reported a record daily rise in cases. But it said it would begin to restart passenger railway services, with 15 special trains, from Tuesday.

Russia, where the death toll is still comparatively low but the caseload surging, overtook Italy and Britain to report the highest number of cases after the United States and Spain.

In the United States, where unemployment figures released last week were the worst since the Great Depression, President Donald Trump has been trying to shift the emphasis towards reopening the economy. Many states have begun loosening restrictions even though cases continue to rise.

While economies around the world are facing the worst contraction in living memory, stock markets have surged since the start of April, fuelled by unprecedented injections of cash from central banks. That has created unease that financial markets are out of whack with the economies they reflect.

There were signs of a shift in sentiment on Monday, with stock markets giving up their early gains.

“Since late March there has been an extraordinary divergence between the real economy and financial risk, with the latter helped by unprecedented policy accommodation,” said Alan Ruskin, head of G10 foreign exchange trading at Deutsche Bank.

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