Health or wealth? Nations pressured to loosen virus rules

MADRID — As the coronavirus pandemic throws millions out of work and devastates economies worldwide, governments are struggling with the dilemma between keeping people safe from a highly contagious virus and making sure they can still make a living.

Workers in some nonessential industries were returning to their jobs Monday in Spain, one of the hardest hit countries in the coronavirus pandemic, while in South Korea, officials were warning that hard-earned progress fighting the virus could be eroded by new infections as restrictions ease.

The decisions are more complicated because each nation is on its own coronavirus arc, with places like Britain, Japan and parts of the United States still seeing increasing deaths or infections; France and New York hoping they are stabilizing at a high plateau of deaths; and hard-hit nations like Italy and Spain seeing declines in the rates of new deaths and infections.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said his government must balance its response to the virus crisis that “threatens to destroy lives and at the same time destroy the economic and social fabric of our country.”

Seeking to restart manufacturing, Spain’s government is allowing workers to return to some factory and construction jobs. Retail stores and services remain closed and Spanish office workers are strongly encouraged to continue working from home. A prohibition on people leaving home for anything other than groceries and medicine will remain for at least two weeks under the country's state of emergency.

‘’(Spain’s) economy is more vulnerable to the crisis since it relies on services like tourism that are severely harmed by the pandemic. That means it will likely have a deeper recession,” European Central Bank Vice President Luis de Guindos told Spain’s La Vanguardia newspaper.

Yet some health experts and politicians argue it is premature to ease the lockdown in a nation that has suffered 17,489 deaths and reported 169,496 infections, second only to the 557,000 infections tallied in the United States. But Spain on Monday reported its lowest daily growth in infections in three weeks.

In Madrid, José Pardinas took one of the masks being handed out by police as he walked to work at a moving company that was re-starting operations after a three-week halt.

“The company hasn’t given us any protective equipment. I’m quite nervous about contracting the virus because my family can’t afford more time without an income,” Pardinas said.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, meanwhile, issued a global plea to the world’s richer countries and international financial institutions to provide debt-relief for poor countries, where forced lockdowns are crippling already wretched economies and causing widespread hunger for the poor.

His government has launched an ambitious $8 billion program to help the millions who barely rise to poverty level. Khan last week relaxed his country's lockdown to allow the construction industry, which employs the vast majority of Pakistan's daily wage earners, to re-open.

In South Korea, Prime Minster Chung Sye-kyun said officials were discussing new public guidelines that would allow for “certain levels of economic and social activity” while also maintaining distance to slow the virus' spread.

South Korea’s caseload has slowed from early March, when it was reporting around 500 new daily cases, but officials have warned of a broader “quiet spread'' at bars and restaurants, which are still open. President Moon Jae-in vowed Monday to focus on saving jobs and protecting the economy amid a sharp increase in the number of people seeking unemployment benefits. He said “confidence is growing” that the country will beat the coronavirus.

But South Korea’s vice health minister, Kim Gang-lip, said a quick return to normality was “virtually impossible” considering the threat of new transmissions.

“A premature easing (of social distancing) would come at an irrevocable cost, so we should approach the issue very carefully, and invest deep thought into when and how to transition,” Kim said Monday.

In Sri Lanka, the government announced plans to reopen schools and universities in May.

The Italian government said more than 12,500 people were sanctioned and 150 face criminal charges of violating lockdown measures over the Easter weekend. On the hopeful side, Italy recorded the lowest number of daily virus deaths in three weeks at 431, putting its total at over 19,800.

The pandemic's new epicenter is now the United States, which has seen more than 22,000 deaths, the world’s highest. About half have been in the New York metropolitan area, but hospitalizations are slowing in the state and other indicators suggest lockdowns and social distancing are working.

U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said parts of the country could gradually reopen as early as next month.

In Britain, the death toll passed 10,600 and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the first major world leader to test positive for the virus, paid an emotional tribute to the country’s National Health Service following his release from the hospital. He said NHS workers saved his life “no question.”

Johnson, who spent three nights in intensive care, especially thanked two nurses who stood by his bedside for 48 hours “when things could have gone either way.”

Japan, the world’s third-biggest economy, has seen its number of new infections climb rapidly in recent days and now has 7,255 confirmed cases. Japanese companies have been slow to switch to remote work and many people are still commuting, even after a state of emergency was declared for seven prefectures, including Tokyo.

To encourage people to stay home, the Japanese government released a video showing the president cuddling his dog, reading a book and clicking a remote control at home but the message drew mocking criticism on social media, with people noting that many could not afford to stay home.

Social distancing was on full display for Easter Sunday celebrations around the world, with many Christians marking the day isolated in their homes while pastors preached to empty pews. St. Peter’s Square was barricaded to keep out crowds and one Florida church drew a large turnout for a drive-in service in a parking lot.

Pope Francis called for global solidarity to confront the “epochal challenge” of the pandemic. He urged political leaders to give hope and opportunity to the millions laid off from work.

More than 1.8 million coronavirus infections have been reported and over 114,000 people have died worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University. The figures understate the true size and toll of the pandemic, due to limited testing, uneven counting of the dead and deliberate under-counting by some governments.