China eases restrictions in epicentre province as world locks down

A child wearing a protective mask plays in front of a public housing block at Choi Hung Estate, following the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak, in Hong Kong, China on March 25, 2020. On Tuesday China announced oan end to travel curbs.
A child wearing a protective mask plays in front of a public housing block at Choi Hung Estate, following the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak, in Hong Kong, China on March 25, 2020. On Tuesday China announced oan end to travel curbs.

China announced on Tuesday an end to travel curbs at the epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic, as governments around the world tightened lockdowns affecting 1.7 billion people in a desperate effort to slow the spread of the deadly disease.

Hubei province, where the novel coronavirus emerged late last year, is allowing healthy residents to travel, officials said, two months after they were ordered to stay indoors.

The relaxation of rules, which will not apply to the hardest-hit city of Wuhan until April 8, comes as Britain and New Zealand joined nations in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, North America and Asia in declaring countrywide lockdowns in a bid to staunch the flow of new infections.

The extraordinary measures around the world continued to throw up horrifying tales, including soldiers in Spain tasked with fighting the outbreak reported finding abandoned elderly people — some dead — at retirement homes.

And on the deserted streets of New York, one psychologist who ventured out voiced fears over the long-term mental health of everyone affected.

“I’m scared for me and patients that this could go on for months,” said Lauren, who declined to give her surname.

Anxiety and depression “all gets heightened at a time like this.”

The financial impact of economies grinding to a halt continued to unnerve policymakers, who opened the spigots and flooded the markets with yet more cash — their latest effort to keep the wheels turning.

In the US, the Federal Reserve unveiled an unprecedented bond-buying programme, in a move not seen since the global financial crisis more than a decade ago.

The Fed, which has already slashed interest rates to record lows, said it would buy unlimited amounts of Treasury debt and take steps to lend directly to small and medium-sized firms hammered by state lockdowns across the country.

Asian markets cheered the news, with Tokyo, Hong Kong and Seoul rocketing in their latest rollercoaster session.

That upswing came despite US politicians’ failure to sign off on a nearly $2 trillion (R35 trillion) package that President Donald Trump says is aimed at supporting ailing enterprises, and helicoptering cash to American families.

His opponents say the bill is too heavily weighted to bailing out big business.

The British government, which has faced accusations that it dithered over the health crisis and needlessly allowed schools to remain open, came into line on Monday.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered a three-week shutdown of non-essential shops and services and banned gatherings of more than two people.

“Stay at home,” Johnson said in a televised address, as he unveiled unprecedented peacetime measures.

The announcement came after crowds of people were seen enjoying weekend sunshine in parks and countryside, prompting calls for tougher action.

We can change the trajectory of this pandemic
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

World Health Organisation chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that the global pandemic was clearly accelerating.

Tedros said it took 67 days from the beginning of the outbreak in China in December for the virus to infect the first 100,000 people worldwide.

In comparison, it required only 11 days for the second 100,000 cases and just four days for the third 100,000, he said.

Tedros acknowledged that many countries were struggling to take more aggressive measures because of a lack of resources but said “we are not helpless bystanders”.

“We can change the trajectory of this pandemic,” he said.

There was a glimmer of hope in figures from Italy, the European ground zero of Covid-19.

New infections in the continent’s hardest-hit country dipped and its daily death toll also fell slightly, although cumulatively the country has recorded more than 6,077 fatalities, far exceeding even that of China.

China's authoritarian government has trumpeted its response to the crisis since doctors began to get a handle on cases of Covid-19, and on Tuesday state media proudly reported that a popular section of the Great Wall would reopen.

Visitors have to wear a mask and stay a metre from everyone else, media said.

Overall, China had 78 new infections on Tuesday, the vast majority brought in from overseas. — AFP