TOP OF THE HOUR:
— China lawmakers gather as doubts swirl over pandemic safety.
— Indonesia works to contain virus spread ahead of Eid al-Fitr.
— Japan lifts state of emergency for Osaka and two neighboring prefectures.
JAKARTA, Indonesia — Indonesia’s number of confirmed coronavirus cases surpassed 20,000 as the world’s most populous Muslim nation is entering a critical period in its fight against the COVID-19 outbreak during its most important Islamic holiday.
Health ministry official Achmad Yurianto announced 973 new infections, the biggest daily increase since the start of the pandemic, bringing the total number of confirmed cases to 20,162.
Yurianto said the outbreak has been growing significantly in the East Java province in the past 24 hours with 502 confirmed cases, which has contributed the most to the country’s biggest single-day spike on Thursday.
Indonesia’s COVID-19 Task Force chief Doni Monardo told a news conference the virus spread has been growing at its fastest speed during the last nine days, as the country is entering a critical moment before and after its Eid al-Fitr celebration to mark the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.
Ramadan exodus was banned this year to contain the spread of the disease, but Monardo said some people had managed to leave big cities.
Monardo said his team is asking help from the military and the police to prevent arrivals in the capital, Jakarta until a full reopening of the capital.
TOKYO — Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced Thursday he is removing a coronavirus state of emergency in Osaka and two neighboring prefectures in the west where the infection is deemed slowing, while keeping the measure in place in the Tokyo region and Hokkaido.
Abe told reporters that experts at the meeting earlier Thursday approved the plan to lift the measures in Osaka, Kyoto and Hyogo, effective immediately.
The measure stays in place in Tokyo and three neighboring prefectures, as well as Hokkaido, where the infections have slowed but need further improvement.
Abe said he plans to summon experts again on Monday to consider possible removal of the measure in the capital region and Hokkaido.
Japan has taken a soft approach to coronavirus social distancing as Abe’s government tried to take disease prevention measures while minimizing damage to the economy.
Japanese business and industry groups are setting up new guidelines to resume operations while observing physical distancing and other preventive measures recommended by experts.
Japan has about 16,500 confirmed cases and nearly 800 deaths as of Wednesday, according to the health ministry.
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — Sri Lankan police say three women died in a stampede Thursday when residents of a Colombo neighborhood scrambled to receive aid being distributed for people who have lost their livelihood because of the new coronavirus restrictions.
Police spokesman Jaliya Senaratne said there were few more people injured and hospitalized. He said police arrested six private individuals who organized the aid distribution.
The Maligawatte area of capital Colombo is a crowded neighborhood where most people drove three-wheeler taxies, ran mobile kiosks or engaged in daily-wage labor for a living.
Sri Lanka has reported just over 1,000 COVID-19 cases with nine deaths.
ROME — Italy’s government is seeking to turn the coronavirus emergency into an opportunity to pass “the mother of all reforms” to simplify the country’s notoriously bulky bureaucracy, invest in education and research and make Italy more attractive to foreign investment.
Premier Giuseppe Conte told parliament’s lower chamber on Thursday that an upcoming “simplification” decree aims to provide a “shock” to the economy, which was heading toward recession even before the pandemic turned Italy into the onetime European epicenter. He said it aims to make Italy more competitive and transparent, while maintaining checks to prevent organized crime from infiltrating public and private contracts.
He said: “If we don’t succeed in simplifying now, in this state of absolute emergency, I frankly doubt we’ll be able to do it in the future.”
Conte also updated lawmakers on the status of Italy’s reopening, which began May 4 and accelerated this week. He said Italy now leads the world in per capita virus testing, and that antibody tests would begin May 25 on a sample 150,000 people — three weeks later than planned.
He said Italy’s contact-tracing app would begin tests “in the coming days” but he made no mention of whether Italy had hired teams of contact-tracers to actually conduct interviews and get in touch with people who had been in contact with COVID-19 patients, as other European countries have done.
JOHANNESBURG — The African continent needs to test about 10 times the number of people it has already tested for the coronavirus. That’s according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Director John Nkengasong says Africa should strive to test at least 1% of the population of 1.3 billion people, or 13 million people, but so far 1.3 million to 1.4 million tests have been conducted. Africa’s number of virus cases is above 95,000 and could surpass 100,000 by the weekend. The continent has seen roughly the same number of new cases in the past week as the week before, and Nkengasong says that “we hope that trend continues.”
While early lockdowns delayed the pandemic, he says “that doesn’t mean Africa has been spared.” But he says health officials are not seeing a lot of community deaths or “massive flooding of our hospitals” because of COVID-19.
Countries with fragile health systems and a recent history of conflict like Somalia and South Sudan, however, remain “very concerning” as cases rise quickly. Somalia has reported more than 1,500 cases but aid groups worry the real number is far higher. South Sudan has more than 280 cases.
MILAN — Italian authorities are warning that young people gathering without respecting physical distancing rules and not wearing masks are risking Italy’s hard-won efforts to control the coronavirus outbreak.
Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala said Thursday that he is asking local police to increase patrols of night spots, be more severe in handing out fines and close any bars or restaurants in flagrant violation of the rules.
He said in a Facebook message that Milan has a problem now, like many Italian cities: “I understand the young people — and they are not only young people — who need to socialize. But the risk is very high.”
Cases in Milan, the seat of hard-hit Lombardy, continue to rise as Italy continues to relax its long lockdown. Since Sunday, there have been 137 new cases in the city of 1.4 million residents.
Premier Giuseppe Conte echoed the concern in a speech to parliament’s lower chamber, saying that while it was “entirely understandable” that young people are excited about going out again, now more than ever it was important to wear masks outdoors and maintain social distancing.
MADRID — Spaniards are going about their restricted lives wearing masks in compliance with a government order that comes into force Thursday.
Masks are now mandatory for people over 6 years old in all public spaces, including outdoors when they can’t keep a distance of 2 meters (6.5 feet) between them.
The new ruling affects approximately 45 million people. It departs from earlier recommendations to make the masks compulsory only for health workers and those with COVID-19 compatible symptoms.
Last month the government extended their obligatory use to public transport.
Bank employee Carlos García in Madrid welcomed the new regulation but said it was coming too late.
“It has been very confusing: one day yes, one day no. I think we are going slowly with this, like with so many other things,” the 23-year-old said.
Spain has recorded more than 27,800 deaths for the new coronavirus and over 230,000 infections confirmed by laboratory tests.
BELGRADE, Serbia — Serbia’s national carrier Air Serbia has resumed commercial flights as the government eased the lockdown against the new coronavirus.
The first flight on Thursday after the lockdown was to Zurich. It will be followed by two more flights to Zurich later in the day, and two more for Frankfurt.
Officials say full resumption of flights will depend also on other airports and countries which are slowly reopening as the virus outbreak appears to slow down.
During the lockdown, Air Serbia flew to pick up Serbia’s citizens who got stranded abroad amid the crisis.
Crisis authorities have said the situation in the country has stabilized despite virus clusters in a southern area. Serbia has reported nearly 11,000 cases and over 200 deaths.
Air Serbia is partly owned by Etihad Airways. The carrier says it will resume flights to New York on June 6.
BEIRUT — Lebanon’s prime minister is warning of a major food crisis in the Mediterranean country which is facing an unprecedented economic and financial crisis made worse by the coronavirus pandemic.
In an opinion piece published in the Washington Post late Wednesday, Prime Minister Hassan Diab also warns of eventual “starvation” in the Middle East that he says may spark a new migration flow to Europe.
He urges the United States and the European Union to establish a dedicated emergency fund to help the conflict-prone region.
Lebanon, one of the most indebted nations in the world, defaulted for the first time in March on its sovereign debt. Anti-government protests that erupted in October over widespread corruption subsided during a nationwide lockdown since mid-March to blunt the spread of the coronavirus, but sporadic protests continue.
Diab’s government is seeking a rescue program from the International Monetary Fund while grappling to deal with the financial crisis that saw the local currency crash, people’s savings devastated and prices and inflation soar in the past few weeks.
In a stark warning, Diab says many Lebanese may soon find it difficult to afford even bread.
MADRID — The top official in charge of easing Spain’s lockdown says that the country will only reopen to foreign tourists in July, once safety for both locals and visitors can be guaranteed.
Wary of the competition from other Mediterranean countries already reopening borders, hoteliers and officials in tourist-magnet islands and coastal regions have been pressing Spanish central authorities to relax curbs in place to fight the coronavirus outbreak.
But Environment and Energy Minister Teresa Ribera has told EFE news agency that an early massive opening to visitors would be “irresponsible.”
“Our idea is to work on safe origins and destinations thinking on July rather on June,” Ribera told the state news agency.
She added that rebounds of the outbreak in China, South Korea and Singapore have been associated to imported infections.
Tourism contributes 12% of Spain’s 1.24 trillion-euro (1.4 trillion-dollar) gross domestic product. The country has recorded at least 27,800 deaths for the novel virus and over 232,000 confirmed infections.
LONDON — Drug maker AstraZeneca says it has secured the first agreements for 400 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine that is now being tested.
The pharmaceutical company says in a statement Thursday that it plans to conclude further deals in order to expand capacity over the next few months.
The company says it has the capacity to manufacture 1 billion doses of the University of Oxford’s potential COVID-19 vaccine.
AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot says the company “will do everything in our power to make this vaccine quickly and widely available.”