China's President Xi Jinping backs virus inquiry as Europe eases out of lockdown
Chinese President Xi Jinping attends the opening of the G20 leaders summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina November 30, 2018. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes

China supports an independent inquiry into the handling of the coronavirus pandemic after it is "brought under control", President Xi Jinping said Monday, as Europe accelerated its reopenings with landmarks Saint Peter's Basilica and the Acropolis in Athens welcoming visitors again.

After weeks dogged by allegations from the US and elsewhere that Beijing had covered up the virus' origins, Xi insisted during the World Health Assembly that China has "always had an open, transparent and responsible attitude".

More than 4.7 million people have tested positive and 315,270 killed by the disease since it emerged in Wuhan late last year, according to an AFP tally.

Russia offered a glimpse of hope as it reported that growth in new cases had been halted, and US biotech firm Moderna reported "positive interim" results in the first clinical tests of its vaccine against the new coronavirus.

AFP / GREG BAKER Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke via video link to the World Health Assembly

But fears were growing over soaring infections in Brazil, India and South Africa.

The COVID-19 outbreak "must be a wake-up call," UN chief Antonio Guterres told the same virtual assembly, as he called out countries for failing to heed warnings from the World Health Organization about the virus.

"Different countries have followed different, sometimes contradictory strategies and we are all paying a heavy price," Guterres said, singling out in particular those who "ignored the recommendations" of the WHO.

Beyond the heavy toll on human lives, the pandemic has left a trail of economic destruction as governments shut borders, schools, offices and shops to halt transmission of the virus.

With infection tolls slowing, Europe's worst hit countries are gingerly returning to normal.

World-famous landmarks like Saint Peter's Basilica in the Vatican and the Athens Acropolis joined a slew of reopenings in Europe, alongside other churches, shops and restaurants which were allowed to welcome the public again.

Italy, once the hardest-hit country in the world, saw the first such openings after more than two months of lockdown, although the public reacted cautiously.

"There's no-one here. Closed or open it's the same thing," lamented Raimondo Ricci, owner of the tourist favourite Sant' Eustachio Il Caffe near Rome's Piazza Navona.

In Venice, where gondolas returned to the waters again albeit with the gondoliers wearing with gloves and masks, locals heaved a sigh of relief.

AFP / Aris MESSINIS  The Acropolis in Athens was one of a number of famous landmarks reopened

"It's good news, a sign of everyone's desire to get back to normal as soon as possible, but without ever lowering our guard in order to defeat the virus once and for all," said Giovanni Giusto, city councillor for the Protection of Traditions.

Foreign ministers from more than 10 European nations were set for talks Monday on whether some of this year's vital summer tourist trade could be saved.

And Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Emmanuel Macron of France were to hold a joint press conference on their plans to kick-start the European Union's economy.

But governments must walk a fine line between repairing the vast economic damage unleashed by the pandemic while preventing new infections that would force another round of restrictions.

- South America, Africa hit hard -

UN chief Guterres warned that the eye of the storm is turning to the southern hemisphere, where its impact might be "even more devastating".

The latest data has focussed fears concerning South America and Africa.

Deaths in Brazil have risen sharply in recent days, and with more than 241,000 infections reached over the weekend, South America's largest country now has the fourth-highest caseload in the world.

Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has blamed lockdowns for unnecessarily hurting the Brazilian economy and defied social distancing measures, but experts and regional leaders have warned that healthcare infrastructure could collapse.

AFP / Miguel MEDINA Italy, once the hardest-hit country in the world, saw shops reopen after more than two months of lockdown

Latin America and the Caribbean have recorded more than half a million infections, almost half of them in Brazil, and there is growing alarm about the impact of the virus on the least privileged in the region.

Ecuador reported the first COVID-19 case in one of its indigenous Amazon tribes, deepening the crisis in one of South America's hardest-hit countries.

AFP /COVID-19: World toll

Nicaraguan hospital staff have said the country's health system is overwhelmed with patients suffering from respiratory illnesses and relatives say the bodies of loved ones are being carted off in pick-up trucks for "express burials" without their consent.

"Mourners are forced to chase trucks with the coffin to find out where their loved ones are being buried," the opposition National Coalition said in a statement denouncing government secrecy.

Relatives "are threatened by police or paramilitaries so that they do not tell the truth about the causes of death," it said.

AFP / Yuri KADOBNOV Russia offered a glimpse of hope as it reported that growth in new cases had been halted

There was also grim data in Africa, where the number of infections rose rapidly.

South Africa on Sunday reported 1,160 new coronavirus infections, the highest daily number since the first case was recorded in March, taking the total to 15,515 -- the highest on the continent.

In Asia, India extended its lockdown covering 1.3 billion people to the end of May as it reported its biggest single-day jump in infections on Sunday.

- Deep economic pain -

COVID-19 has left the world economy facing its worst downturn since the Great Depression, with Japan announcing its first recession since 2015 -- new evidence of the deep economic damage.

The world's biggest economy is also going to suffer a massive downturn, US Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell warned.

"The data we'll see for this quarter, which ends in June, will be very, very bad. There'll be a big decline in economic activity, big increase in unemployment," Powell said.

He added that a full recovery may not happen without a vaccine.

In American virus hotspot New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo urged the public to safeguard the state's tentative reopening by proactively seeking coronavirus tests, himself undergoing a nasal swab on live TV Sunday.

In one Brooklyn park, circles were spray-painted on the grass to encourage social distancing among people basking in the spring sunshine.