Paris              -            Global infections from the novel coronavirus passed five million on Thursday as the pandemic played out unevenly across the planet, Europe tentatively emerging from its shell and deaths still rising in hotspots in Latin America.  The grim milestone comes after known cases of COVID-19 doubled in just one month, according to AFP data collected from official sources, with the death toll now topping 328,000 worldwide. 

While many hard-hit European countries have significantly turned the tide on new infections and fatalities, Latin America is in the grip of an infection surge.  Brazil is leading the pack, logging the third-highest number of cases in the world after the US and Russia.

Peru, Mexico and Chile have also seen steady increases in infections, with nurses in Lima warning that the health system is on the brink of collapse after cases and deaths tripled over the past three weeks.

“It’s like a horror film,” Miguel Armas, a nurse at the Hipolito Unanue hospital in the capital Lima, told AFP. “Inside it seems like a cemetery given all the bodies. Patients are dying in their chairs (or) in their wheelchairs.”

In Brazil, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro continues to scorn experts’ advice on curbing the contagion as he presses regional governors to end stay-at-home measures.  And like US President Donald Trump, he has promoted the use of anti-malaria drugs against the virus despite studies showing they have no benefit and could have dangerous side effects.

- Vaccine race -

As governments pray for an end to the economic strangulation from shutdowns, the race to develop a vaccine has been buoyed by experiments on monkeys that offered hope that humans can develop immunity to the virus.  The US also pumped an additional $1 billion into the British pharmaceuticals group AstraZeneca to help fund the production of a vaccine. In the meantime, many countries are testing ways to live with the dangers in the interim.  In Spain, which is emerging from one of the world’s toughest lockdowns, face masks have been made mandatory for anyone aged six and over in public where social distancing is not possible.

“It gives me a sense of security,” Cristina Quevedo Jorquera, a 47-year-old school teacher in Madrid, said of the mask requirement.  “There will be contagion even with a mask, but without a mask it’s like jumping into a pool without knowing how to swim”.

With many other European countries also gradually awakening from lockdowns, the  economic collapse in the eurozone has “likely bottomed out” with the rate of decline now easing as economies creak open, according to a survey by IHS Markit.

- Robots and beer -

Elsewhere, Cyprus bounded into its second stage of de-confinement Thursday, lifting curfews and allowing outdoor restaurants, barber shops and beaches to open on the Mediterranean island, though airports and hotels remain closed.

In reopened cafes, customers were seated outdoors with spacing between tables, while some ate with plastic face shields still on.

New Zealanders also relished a return to pubs.

“I’d normally never drink beer at lunchtime but it’s good, it feels kind of like back to normal, you know?” said Jim Hall, a 70-year-old who popped inside a pub for a midday refresher.

“We’ve done the hard yards and this is the reward,” he said between sips of stout.

Yet some fear lockdowns are loosening too fast in places like Tanzania, whose government announced it would resume university life and sporting events on June 1 even as the US embassy warned virus was spreading exponentially in the East African nation.

And in Asia, some experiments in adjusting to the new normal have gone awry.

Not everyone was amused in Singapore by a yellow robot dog deployed to patrol a city park and monitor social distancing.

 The remote-controlled hound uses cameras to estimate the number of visitors and blasts out a message to remind joggers and walkers to stand at least one metre apart.

“I think it’s really going to be chilling in a way -- something is looking around and I’m not sure how it’s going to react to me when I go near it,” local resident Simon Neo told AFP.