COPENHAGEN, Denmark — The first tentative steps in winding back economically crippling coronavirus restrictions in Europe are running into resistance. Shoppers are staying away from the few stores that are reopening and some workers fear that newly-restored freedoms could put their health at risk.
Amazon threatened Wednesday to halt all its activities in France, a day after a court ordered the online retail giant to stop selling, receiving or delivering nonessential goods for the next month to protect its employees from the virus. Unions hailed the order as a victory for workers’ rights and public health.
The European Union’s executive commission echoed the concerns Wednesday even as it published a 16-page road map plotting a united but wary course out of the pandemic that has plunged the world into unprecedented lockdowns and killed over 127,000 people, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.
The World Health Organization was on the hot seat Wednesday after U.S. President Donald Trump announced a halt to American payments to the group, pending a review of its warnings about the coronavirus and China. Trump, whose own response to the virus has been called into question, criticized the U.N. health agency for not sounding the alarm over the coronavirus sooner.
An investigation by The Associated Press has found that six days of delays by China — from Jan. 14 to Jan. 20 — in alerting the public to the growing dangers of the virus set the stage for a pandemic that has upended the lives of millions, sideswiped the global economy and cost over 127,000 lives.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the 27-nation group “deeply” regrets Trump’s decision, saying the WHO is now “needed more than ever” to combat the pandemic.
“Only by joining forces can we overcome this crisis that knows no borders,” he said.
In Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse, Chancellor Angela Merkel was meeting with her “corona Cabinet” and then her country’s 16 state governors to discuss their next steps.
Germany has received high praise for its aggressive testing, which experts say is one of the main reasons the country’s virus death toll of 3,495 is so low compared to its European neighbors. Italy, Spain and France have more than 55,000 virus-linked deaths between them, according to Johns Hopkins University.
The EU roadmap warned that “any level of gradual relaxation of the confinement will unavoidably lead to a corresponding increase in new cases.”
That fear appeared to be praying on the minds of people in Austria and Italy, where an easing of restrictions this week allowed some stores to reopen.
Marie Froehlich, who owns a clothing store in downtown Vienna, said her staff were happy to get back to work after weeks of being cooped up at home. But with her business dependent largely on tourism, which has dried up amid all the pandemic travel restrictions, she expects it will take months to return to normal.
“Because we are located in the city center of Vienna, we depend very much on tourism,” she said. “And I think it might start again by October, November, December – until then, we are in crisis mode.”
The scene was similar in hard-hit Italy, where Camilla Cocchi owns two baby clothing stores. Wearing a mask and gloves, she re-opened Tuesday, but was faced with streets in the capital of Rome that were still largely deserted amid the country’s lockdown.
Elsewhere in Europe, another slight rollback of restrictions led to joy among Danish children who were allowed back into school.
Denmark let preschoolers and students up to fifth grade return to classrooms Wednesday. Older students, including those at college, still must study online from home.
“I’m very impressed. The children are very happy to see their buddies again,” Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen told TV2 as she attended the first school day in Valby, suburban Copenhagen.
“Many children feel just like cows going to grass. They feel like jumping and dancing and being with their pals, but there are some safety rules,” said Claus Hjortdal, head of Denmark’s school principals association.
Signe Wilms Raun, whose son Hugo returned to preschool at the Langhoej school in Hvidovre, hoped that the school day was going to be more than washing hands and social distancing.
“Can they play football in the schoolyard or will it all be about keeping their distances?” Wilms Raun asked.
In Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison urged teachers to keep schools open for the sake of children and their parents. His message came as Victoria state schools resumed after a break and other states considered how to reopen amid the pandemic.
But Meredith Peace, a union education official in Victoria, said while schools in the state are open, most of the students and staff are staying home amid fears that teachers can’t maintain social distancing in classrooms.
While some European countries plot exit strategies amid signs of that their outbreaks are easing, the plight of the elderly in nursing homes is still a horrific concern.
Police in Milan are investigating the 1,000-bed Pio Albergho Trivulzio nursing home, where 143 people have reportedly died in the past month. Prosecutors began a probe after staff complained that management prohibited doctors and nurses from wearing protective masks, for fear of alarming residents. The facility has insisted it followed all security protocols and says it is cooperating with the investigation.
The situation in Italian nursing homes is so dire that Lombardy launched an independent investigative commission. Lombardy, the region at the epicenter of the Italian outbreak, is home to 28% of all Italian elderly care facilities.
Across the Channel, Caroline Abrahams, director of the charity Age U.K., said the British government’s daily coronavirus death toll updates “are airbrushing older people out like they don’t matter.”
Pope Francis dwelled on the plight of the elderly Wednesday at his morning masse.
“We pray today for the elderly, especially for those who are isolated in elderly homes,” he said. “They are afraid, afraid of dying alone, the feel this pandemic as something aggressive. They are our roots, our history, they gave us faith, traditions, a sense of belonging to a nation.”
In South Korea, a parliamentary election on Wednesday gave a glimpse of a possible post-lockdown future as voters cast ballots under the watchful eyes of masked poll workers armed with thermometers and sanitizing spray.
“I was worried about the coronavirus,” Seoul resident Chung Eun-young said. “They checked my temperature and handed me gloves, but it wasn’t as bothersome as I thought it would be.”
The U.S. has by far been the hardest-hit country in the global pandemic, with more than 26,000 deaths and over 609,000 confirmed infections, according to Johns Hopkins University. Still, scenarios predicting a far greater number of deaths and hospitalizations have not come to pass, raising hopes from coast to coast.
Worldwide, infections are approaching 2 million and virus deaths are over 127,000, according to the Johns Hopkins tally. The figures understate the true size of the pandemic, because of limited testing, uneven counting of the dead and concealment by some governments.
By JAN M. OLSEN, NICOLE WINFIELD and MIKE CORDER | Associated Press
Winfield reported from Rome and Corder from The Hague, Netherlands. Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.