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Spain calls on army to fight virus as WHO signals slowdown

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize warned that "our biggest worry is whether in fact this is the first surge and there might be another one", pointing to the latest developments in Spain.

One of the worst affected countries in Europe, Spain is to use 2,000 soldiers trained in tracking to help regions identify those who have been exposed to infected people. Picture: Picture: AFP

MADRID - Spain said on Tuesday it will call in the army to try to help curb the spread of the coronavirus as parts of Europe and Asia battle new surges, while data from the UN health agency suggested the pace of transmission was easing in many parts of the world.

Governments have been ramping up efforts to contain the disease, which has claimed the lives of almost 814,000 people and infected at least 23 million since late last year.

World Health Organization data said fatality and infection rates were easing in most regions, notably in the hard-hit Americas, except Southeast Asia and the eastern Mediterranean.

In Africa, WHO regional director Matshidiso Moeti said new cases were declining after the continent passed "what seems to have been a peak".

But South African Health Minister Zweli Mkhize warned that "our biggest worry is whether in fact this is the first surge and there might be another one", pointing to the latest developments in Spain.

One of the worst affected countries in Europe, Spain is to use 2,000 soldiers trained in tracking to help regions identify those who have been exposed to infected people.

"We can't let the pandemic once again take control of our lives... we must take control and halt this second curve," said Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.

Thousands of miles away, South Korea ordered the closure of all schools and kindergartens in the greater Seoul region and a return to online learning.

'Alarming emergence of mass infections'

South Korea's move -- coupled with Mexico's launch Monday of a nationwide televised schooling programme -- underlined the effect on young people of a pandemic now dragging into its ninth month.

The UN estimates say at least 60 percent of the global student population has been impacted by school closures across more than 140 countries.

The challenges of reopening schools safely were highlighted as the University of Alabama reported close to a thousand positive coronavirus tests since term started last week.

Although fatality rates have been falling, the WHO said it recorded more than 1.7 million new coronavirus cases and some 39,000 new deaths in the week to August 23.

That represented however a five-percent decrease in new cases globally and a 12-percent drop in new deaths compared with the week before.

In some parts of the world, people feel too desperate to keep up the virus fight.

Still staggering from the effects of a massive detonation that devastated capital Beirut on August 4, Lebanese service sector businesses said they would defy a new lockdown order despite record case numbers.

Tony Ramy, who heads the syndicate of owners of restaurants, cafes, nightclubs and pastry shops, urged owners to defy an "arbitrary and demagogic decision to close down" for two weeks.

In Gaza, the Hamas government of the Israeli-blockaded strip announced a 48-hour curfew after a cluster of cases was identified, prompting a rush on bakeries.

Bolt in quarantine

The latest high-profile case was sprint legend Usain Bolt, who was in quarantine Monday after undergoing a test for the virus that Jamaican media reported had come back positive.

The retired 100 and 200 metres world-record holder said on Twitter that he was "trying to be responsible" by going into isolation, but he did not confirm the result.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's son Flavio also tested positive, saying he was taking the anti-malaria drug chloroquine, even though medical studies have not found it to be effective against the virus.

But there was good news for actor Antonio Banderas who tweeted that he was "cured" after three weeks in isolation over his 60th birthday.

EU trade commissioner Phil Hogan meanwhile was battling for his job after accusations he ignored coronavirus restrictions to attend a golf society dinner in his home country Ireland.

"It is abundantly clear that the event should not have been held and that I should not have attended," Hogan wrote.

Months of lockdowns to stem the virus spread have seen millions lose their jobs and swathes of businesses shut their doors amid fears of a second wave.

On Tuesday, American Airlines said it would lay off around 19,000 workers on October 1 if US lawmakers fail to vote through new support for the limping sector.

Earlier, Australian airline Qantas had said it would cut almost 2,500 more jobs on top of 6,000 already announced, while Finnair said it would slash 1,000 posts.

And Virgin Atlantic said its creditors had approved a rescue worth £1.2-billion ($1.6 billion or 1.3 billion euros).

The race to bring a vaccine to market hotted up still further as Britain-based pharma giant AstraZeneca said it had begun a clinical trial of a drug designed both to prevent infection and treat people with COVID-19.

The drug is being tested on 48 healthy people aged between 18 and 55, the company said, hailing "an important milestone" in the fight against COVID-19.