COVID-19 cases climb in Europe, Africa; Asian nations extend distancing

COVID-19 activity continues to rise sharply in parts of Eastern Europe such as Russia and Belarus, as cases soar in parts of Africa, and countries in Asia shore up efforts to stem rising case numbers.

The global total today climbed to 2.5 million cases from 185 countries, with deaths reaching 175,812, according to the Johns Hopkins online dashboard.

Russia, Belarus are hot spots

Russia today reported another record high daily number of cases, adding 5,642 more to lift its overall count to 42,763, the Moscow Times reported. Moscow is the country's main hot spot, residents are under a stay-at-home order, and local health officials have warned that the city is in for difficult weeks ahead.

As another measure, health officials rolled out a digital permit system this week that is required for travel by car or public transportation.

Meanwhile, cases are also accelerating in Belarus, Russia's neighbor to the west, with 459 more cases reported today. It is one of the few countries in which COVID-19 is circulating that has not ordered wide-scale social distancing measures.

After an expert team mission to Belarus, the World Health Organization (WHO) today said the country needs to introduce community-mitigation steps to increase social distancing.

In a statement from its European regional office, the WHO said the number of reported cases in Belarus is growing rapidly and that the government has implemented containment measures such as testing suspected patients, tracing contacts, and isolating sick people, and it has focused on increasing hospital surge capacity.

"With community transmission established, it is important to complement these interventions with physical distancing measures," the WHO said. Such measures may include postponing large gatherings, offering telework options, and reducing nonessential activity, especially for high-risk groups.

Patrick O'Connor, MD, who led the WHO mission, commended the Belarus government for repurposing private and public capacity to make personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers. "This is very much needed in countries across the European Region and the globe, and the attention Belarus is placing on this critical issue is indeed remarkable," he said.

More marquee events canceled in Europe

Elsewhere in Europe, Germany announced the cancellation of Oktoberfest, the world's largest outdoor festival, a multiweek event in Munich that begins at the end of September, drawing about 6 million people. And Spain announced that the city of Pamplona has cancelled the running of the bulls, an event typically held in the middle of July, attracting about 1 million spectators.

In other European developments:

  • Italy is past its peak, but the number of new infections is still high in the hard-hit Lombardy region, mainly because workers in businesses allowed to remain open are contracting the virus at their jobs and passing it to their families, the Wall Street Journal reported today. And though the country is set to start relaxing its restrictions in early May, the government has allowed some nonessential businesses to apply for waivers.

  • Spanish data show that 31,788 health workers have been infected in the country's outbreak, making up about 15% of the illness total. Medical teams encountered shortages of PPE at the beginning of the outbreak.

  • French lawmakers vote next week on whether to allow a smartphone app to assist with contact tracing. The country will start gradually lifting social distancing measures on May 11.

Exponential increases in DRC, Tanzania

Across the WHO's African region countries, COVID-19 cases rose sharply last week, from 9,663 to 14,068, with deaths rising from 461 to 658, the regional office said in a weekly health emergencies and outbreaks report.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Tanzania reported exponential increases in the reporting week ending Apr 19.

So far, the most affected African countries are South Africa, Algeria, Ghana, and Cameroon. The WHO said some countries have very high case-fatality rates, with the highest in Algeria (15%), the DRC (8%), and Mali (6.3%).

Among countries in Africa, 112 healthcare worker infections have been reported from 16 countries.

Myanmar attack kills WHO worker

The WHO announced today that one of its employees was killed last night during a security incident in Myanmar's Rakhine district while transporting COVID-19 surveillance samples for the country's health ministry.

In a statement, Poonam Khetrapal Singh, PhD, regional director of the WHO's South East Asia regional office, condemned violence against the health workforce.

"This incident once again puts the spotlight on the extreme hardships being faced by our corona warriors--our doctors, nurses, other health workforce--especially while working in security compromised and hard-to-reach areas as they continue to contribute their best to save lives," she said.

Singapore, Hong Kong extend distancing

In Singapore, health officials extended the country's COVID-19 restrictions until early June, due to a surge in cases mainly related to large outbreaks at foreign worker dormitories, Agence France-Presse reported. The measures were slated to end on May 4 but have been pushed to June 1.

The health ministry today reported 1,111 new cases, down from 1,426 reported yesterday. Of today's new cases, 1,050 are from foreign workers in dorms. The facilities, located on the outskirts of the main city, house more than 300,000 migrant workers, mainly from Bangladesh, India, and China, Reuters reported. Workers live in crowded conditions, with rooms containing bunks for 12 to 20 men. So far, 19 dorms have been quarantined, and rights groups say that the situation at the building reveals a weak spot in Singapore's widely praised response effort.

Elsewhere in Asia, Hong Kong today announced that it would extend its social distancing measures but suspended a rule requiring restaurants to operate at half capacity, saying they can operate at full capacity if they observe other rules designed to curb the spread of the virus.

A few weeks ago, Hong Kong reported a resurgence in cases, but cases have dropped again, with just four more reported today. All had traveled, and one is an overseas student.

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