Beijing fights new virus outbreak as India deaths soar

by Jing Xuan Teng and Laurie Chen, with AFP Bureaus
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Beijing's airports have cancelled hundreds of flights over the latest cluster

China closed schools in Beijing and restricted air travel from the capital on Wednesday to halt an outbreak of coronavirus cases and dampen fears of a second wave, as India's death toll spiked.

The new Chinese cluster and surging infections in Latin America and South Asia have raised fresh doubts about how quickly the world can control a pandemic that has so far caused more than 443,000 deaths from more than eight million infections.

The pandemic has forced sports, entertainment and cultural events off the calendar for the past three months, but the resumption of the English Premier League later on Wednesday after a 100-day exile marks a return to something like normality.

And amid a frenzied scramble to find a treatment or a vaccine, British researchers announced that a common steroid could reduce deaths among COVID-19 patients.

However, the lack of a vaccine means nations continue to rely on lockdowns or other lesser restrictions to curb the spread of the virus.

- 'Situation is serious' -

Beijing ordered further restrictions on Wednesday after reporting 31 more cases, taking its total to 137 in the past six days in an outbreak linked to a sprawling wholesale market called Xinfadi.

More than 1,200 flights were cancelled in the capital on Wednesday, state media reported, schools were shut and residents were urged not to leave their homes.

The authorities are carrying out thousands of tests.

"The situation is serious and people don't want to come out," said Bai Xue, a worker at a Beijing restaurant that has put up a notice online saying it has not sourced food from Xinfadi.

While China fears a full-blown second wave, nations such as India are just beginning to feel the full force of the pandemic.

The South Asian nation of 1.3 billion people reported more than 2,000 deaths on Wednesday, bringing its total to nearly 12,000.

Although officials blamed counting issues for the huge jump and stressed not all those deaths had happened in one day, India now has the fourth-highest caseload in the world.

Hospitals in the financial capital Mumbai have been overwhelmed and authorities in New Delhi have taken over hotels and banquet halls to house patients.

While there have been surges in Iran and Saudi Arabia, Latin America remains the global epicentre.

Brazil, the worst-hit nation after the United States, reported its highest daily jump in cases, and Peru's toll surged past 7,000 -- although officials said the number of new cases had begun to fall.

The president of Honduras became the latest public figure to test positive for the virus, Juan Orlando Hernandez telling journalists his symptoms were mild and he would work from home.

A study in Britain provided respite, researchers finding that a widely available steroid called dexamethasone reduced deaths by one third among the most severely ill patients.

"Dexamethasone is inexpensive, on the shelf, and can be used immediately to save lives worldwide," said Oxford professor Peter Horby.

World Health Organization head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus congratulated scientists for the "lifesaving scientific breakthrough".

- 'A little bit weird' -

European nations including Belgium, France, Germany and Greece have begun lifting border restrictions, hoping to save the summer tourism season.

Spain has continued to reopen tourist sites, with the Alhambra palace the latest to welcome visitors back on Wednesday.

But life is far from normal in Europe, despite dropping case numbers in many countries.

The German government plans to ban large events until at least the end of October, according to a draft policy document seen by AFP on Wednesday.

And political leaders are also keen to protect themselves from the virus -- anyone visiting Russian leader Vladimir Putin at his country residence must walk through a device that sprays them from above and the side with disinfectant.

The most visible sign of normality will be the return of the English Premier League.

But even then, there will be a sense of strangeness -- games will be played in empty stadiums, possibly with cardboard cut-outs of supporters in the stands and piped-in crowd sounds.

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola said things would still be "a little bit weird".

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The outbreak prompted more than 1,200 flights to be cancelled in Beijing on Wednesday

Although officials blamed counting issues for the huge jump and stressed not all those deaths had happened in one day, India now has the fourth-highest caseload in the world

Spain continued to reopen tourist sites -- the Alhambra palace the latest to welcome visitors back

The president of Honduras became the latest public figure to test positive for the virus, Juan Orlando Hernandez telling journalists his symptoms were mild and he would work from home

Dexamethasone, an inexpensive, on the shelf drug is being used to treat COVID-19 patients

The global toll of coronavirus infections and deaths as of June 17