Europe tightens virus curbs as global cases top 40 million

A raft of European nations including Italy and Belgium took urgent new measures on Monday to combat a second wave of coronavirus infections as the worldwide caseload topped 40 million.

The latest global milestone came just hours after the number of people who have died from COVID-19 passed 250,000 in Europe, according to an AFP tally, as the pandemic rampages across much of the continent.

Many governments are seeking to avoid the full-on lockdowns imposed in the first wave as they battle to keep their economies going.

But in some countries, people are chafing against new restrictions on daily life, and anti-mask protests, court challenges and battles between central and local governments are on the rise.

In Belgium, where hospitalisations rose 100 percent in just the last week, bars and restaurants were closed on Monday for a month and a curfew will be reinforced overnight.

"Managers, chefs, dish-washers, everyone is suffering," Angelo Bussi said as he put the key in the lock of his Brussels restaurant late Sunday.

"We don't feel like anyone cares. It breaks my heart," he told AFP before shrugging and walking off into the night. "Ah, well there we are, see you in a month."

Belgium's second major lockdown comes after Prime Minister Alexander de Croo warned the situation was "much worse" than in March when there was an almost complete confinement.

Wales also decided to impose a full "firebreak" lockdown for two weeks from Friday which forces people to stay home except for limited purposes like exercise.

Non-food retailers, cafes, restaurants, pubs, hotels and services such as hairdressers and beauticians are all closing.

Italy, the initial epicentre of Europe's outbreak, also announced fresh curbs including earlier closures for bars and restaurants and a push to increase working from home.

In Poland, where around half the country is now designated as a coronavirus "red zone", the government said the national stadium would double as a field hospital to help ease the strain on overwhelmed health facilities.

'Second wave is here'

Switzerland meanwhile made mask-wearing compulsory in indoor public spaces and put limits on public gatherings after infections doubled over the last week. 

"The second wave is here, earlier and stronger than we expected, but we are prepared," Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset said.

France imposed its own overnight curfew from the weekend in nine cities including Paris, affecting 20 million people, with a record 32,400 new infections reported on Saturday.  

Slovenia did too, with its roughly two million inhabitants forced to stay home between 9:00 pm and 6:00 am from Tuesday and banned from non-essential travel.

While European nations imposed new restrictions, a lockdown eased in Australia's second-biggest city of Melbourne on Monday, as residents flocked to reopened hair salons and golf courses that had been closed for more than 100 days.

The number of daily cases rose to 700 in August in the state of Victoria of which Melbourne is the capital, but following months of a strict lockdown it has fallen as low as one, with four recorded on Monday.

Melbourne hair salon owner Daniel Choi said he was suddenly fully booked until December.

"From yesterday, there are so many messages for me: 'I want a haircut'. They want to change their style," he told AFP.

Restaurants and most other retail businesses will remain shut until at least November, though.

Vaccine hopes

Israel has also lifted restrictions that banned people from travelling more than a kilometre from home as well as closing kindergartens, beaches and national parks.

Saudi Arabia eased more of its own virus restrictions when it allowed worshippers to re-enter the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Islam's holiest site, for prayers on Sunday for the first time since March.

And China, where the virus first emerged at the end of 2019, saw its economy charge ahead in the third quarter, growing 4.9 percent in what is close to pre-pandemic levels.

Numerous political figures have contracted the virus in recent days, including veteran chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who is in a "critical" condition and in a medically induced coma, the Jerusalem hospital treating him said.

South Africa's Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said he tested positive for Covid-19 just two days after the country's diagnosed cases topped 700,000.

Mkhize, 64, is the fifth member of the government to contract the virus after his colleagues in the ministries of defence, labour, trade and mineral resources.

A vaccine remains the greatest hope to end the cycle of imposing and lifting lockdowns across the world, and the United Nations said Monday it would stockpile a billion syringes worldwide by the end of 2021 for that purpose.

"Vaccinating the world against Covid-19 will be one of the largest mass undertakings in human history," UNICEF executive director Henrietta Fore said.

Topics: European nations , Italy , Belgium , coronavirus infections , Alain Berset
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