German giants return to football as Spain, UK death rates fall

Ryland James, with AFP bureaus
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Empty stands are set to become a regular sight as football league in Europe try to salvage their seasons

German football champions Bayern Munich kicked off their first match in more than two months on Sunday as Spain and Britain recorded their lowest daily coronavirus death tolls since March, but the devastating pandemic remained on the march elsewhere.

With a worldwide virus death toll of nearly 312,000 and the global economy reeling from the vast damage caused by lockdowns, numerous European countries are lifting restrictions to provide much-needed respite for their beleaguered and impatient populations.

But the virus is still surging in Brazil, which saw its number of deaths soar past 15,000 with 230,000 infections, making it the country with the fourth-highest number of cases.

Germany's Bundesliga at the weekend became the first top football league to return after lockdown, and defending champions Bayern Munich was up against Union Berlin inside an empty stadium in the capital on Sunday evening.

Already attracting a record TV audience, the restart is under intense scrutiny as a test case, with top sports competitions trying to find ways to resume play without increasing the risk of spreading the virus, which has infected 4.6 million people globally.

However there were calls for the Bundesliga to tighten its hygiene protocol after several players celebrated goals by hugging -- two even kissing on the cheek -- during Saturday's games.

- Latin America cases surge -

A day before Spain is set to further ease its lockdown measures, the country recorded 87 new virus-related deaths -- the first time the number has fallen below 100 in two months.

Britain also registered its lowest daily increase since late March, with 170 fatalities. However that number did not include Nothern Ireland due to a technical issue -- and these figures are often lower on weekends due to lags in reporting.

Despite the optimism in some European countries, rising infection and fatality numbers in other parts of the world offered grim reminders of the threat COVID-19 poses.

The number of cases in Latin America passed half a million as Chile locked down its capital Santiago following a sharp rise in infections.

Despite Brazil's surging numbers, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro is keen to end lockdowns, which he claims have unnecessarily damaged the economy.

"Unemployment, hunger and misery will be the future of those who support the tyranny of total isolation," he tweeted.

India meanwhile reported its biggest single-day jump in infections, prompting an extension of a nationwide lockdown for its 1.3 billion people until the end of May.

Russia, which has the world's second highest number of infections, claimed Sunday that steadying case rates showed the growth of the virus had been halted, after reporting its deadliest day yet on Saturday.

Madagascar and Nepal reported their first coronavirus-linked deaths, while Qatar began enforcing the world's toughest penalties of up to three years' prison for failing to wear a mask in public.

Whether masks are an effective weapon against the virus has been a significant question during the pandemic. A team of Hong Kong experts said Sunday that research conducted on hamsters found that non-contact transmission of the virus could be reduced by more than 60 percent when masks are used.

- Europe relaxes -

The weekend offered welcome relief for people in European countries which relaxed restrictions earlier in the week, with leisure-seekers enjoying newly reopened beaches in France, Greece and Italy, and Britons basking in the sun in parks.

Catholics attended mass in the east of France on Sunday for the first time in two months, but the faithful were inside their cars in a car park, with communion given by mask-wearing priests.

"Clean hands give the communion, clean hands receive it," said bishop Francois Touvet in Chalons-en-Champagne. "An exceptional measure for an exceptional situation."

Italy, for a long stretch the world's worst-hit country, will allow EU tourists to visit from June 3, and has scrapped quarantine requirements.

It is also preparing to reopen restaurants, cafes and most other commercial activities on Monday, but authorities have warned of the danger of social gatherings.

Out of 50 new cases recorded overnight in the Lazio region, which includes Rome, 18 were from four families who attended a single funeral, the region's top health official said.

But with the threat of a second wave of infections and with no vaccine available, authorities in many countries have asked people not to throng public spaces as they are made accessible again.

- 'Not even pretending to be in charge' -

In China, where the virus first emerged late last year but has largely been brought under control, the government's senior medical advisor warned of just such a second wave due to a lack of immunity among the population.

"We are facing (a) big challenge, it's not better than the foreign countries I think at the moment," Zhong Nanshan told CNN.

But with people growing weary of confinement and suffering immense economic pain, pressure is growing on governments to ease lockdowns despite the threat.

President Donald Trump has been keen to restart the world's biggest economy despite the US recording a world-worst 88,000 deaths and 1.47 million cases.

Former president Barack Obama took a swipe at the US response to the pandemic, telling graduates at a virtual college commencement ceremony that many leaders today "aren't even pretending to be in charge" -- a remark widely regarded as a rare rebuke of his successor.

"Doing what feels good, what's convenient, what's easy –- that's how little kids think."