Global infections from the November coronavirus surpassed five million on Thursday as the pandemic played out unevenly across the planet, with China eager to declare a victory, Europe tentatively emerging from its shell and deaths still rising in hotspots in Latin America.
The grim milestone is still only a fraction of the true number of infections from a virus that has claimed more than 328,000 lives in its whirl around the globe, according to AFP tally of official sources.
And while many hard-hit European countries have significantly curbed the rise of cases, Latin America has been in the grip of an infection surge.
Brazil is leading the pack, logging the third-highest number of cases in the world after the US and Russia. Peru, Mexico and Chile have also seen steady increases in infections.
But Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro continues to scorn experts’ advice on lockdown measures, pressing regional governors to end stay-at-home measures.
And like US President Donald Trump, he has promoted the use of anti-malaria drugs against the virus despite studies showing they have no benefit and could have dangerous side effects.
– China’s ‘victory’ –
Trump, for his part, insists the US is “Transitioning back to Greatness” as states reopen at different paces.
The optimism cuts a sharp contrast with the bleak health situation in the country, which leads the world in cases and deaths.
While daily death tolls are no longer on a steady rise, the losses are still punishing with more than 1,500 additional fatalities reported in 24 hours on Wednesday, bringing to the total number in the US to more than 93,400.
Trump, who is desperate to boost his political fortunes ahead of the November election, has also doubled down on his finger-pointing at China, who he blamed for “this mass Worldwide killing”.
Beijing tells a different story, with President Xi Jinping determined to project a success story over the outbreak that started on his country’s soil late last year before wreaking havoc around the globe.
Though China has faced criticism of its initial handling of the outbreak, the country has since brought domestic cases down to a trickle and kept deaths far lower toll than in the worst-hit countries, according to its official figures.
In a new sign of normalisation, on Thursday China opened its biggest political event of the year — the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) — after months of delay over coronavirus fears.
Analysts say the gathering will be a chance for the party to reaffirm its narrative of beating the virus and coming to the aid of other countries with masks and other medical shipments.
It “will likely be an occasion for Xi Jinping to declare complete victory in the ‘people’s war’ over the virus,” Diana Fu, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, told AFP.
– Vaccine race –
As governments pray for an end to the economic strangulation from shutdowns, the race to develop a vaccine has been buoyed by experiments on monkeys that offered hope that humans can develop immunity to the virus.
Researchers reported progress from one study that looked at a prototype vaccine, and another on whether infection with COVID-19 confers protection against re-exposure.
And the US pumped an additional $1 billion (0.9 billion euros) into the British pharmaceuticals group AstraZeneca to help fund the production of a vaccine.
While a full return to normal life will be pegged to the development of a treatment or vaccine, many countries are testing ways to live with the dangers in the meantime.
In Spain, which is emerging from one of the world’s toughest lockdowns, face masks have been made mandatory for anyone aged six and over in public where social distancing is not possible.
In the centre of Madrid on Thursday almost everyone on the street was seen in masks, with several more shops also opening their doors.
“It gives me a sense of security,” Cristina Quevedo Jorquera, a 47-year-old school teacher in Madrid, said of the mask requirement.
“There will be contagion even with a mask, but without a mask it’s like jumping into a pool without knowing how to swim”.
Once the epicentre of the pandemic, much of Europe is now gradually rolling back its restrictions on public life after the number of new cases and deaths has been on a steady decline.
The eurozone’s economic slump caused by lockdowns has “likely bottomed out”, with the rate of decline now easing as economies creak open, a closely watched survey by IHS Markit said.
Elsewhere, India said domestic air travel will resume on May 25 after a two-month shutdown.
And New Zealanders were finally able to go back to the pub on Thursday.
“I’d normally never drink beer at lunchtime but it’s good, it feels kind of like back to normal, you know?” said Jim Hall, a 70-year-old who popped inside a pub for a midday refresher.
“We’ve done the hard yards and this is the reward,” he said between sips of stout.