Visitors walk across the archeological site of Pompeii on May 26, 2020, as Italy eases its lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of Covid-19. Photo: AFP

The Church of the Nativity and the ruins of ancient Pompeii reopened to pilgrims and tourists on Tuesday, as countries further eased coronavirus controls and reopened shuttered economies.

Many of the hardest-hit nations, including Italy and Spain, are trying to salvage their summer tourism seasons – the latest tentative steps out of lockdown buoying world markets.

But the virus, apparently brought under control in Asia and much of Europe, is continuing its spread. 

On Tuesday, the number of cases worldwide passed 5.5 million, according to an AFP tally of official sources.

The number of declared cases has doubled in a month and more than one million new cases of Covid-19 have been registered in the last 11 days. 

More than 346,000 deaths have been recorded worldwide.

The virus and the associated  economic and social lockdowns have plunged the world economy into a severe slump – and ominous figures and forecasts continue to pile up.

Asian trading hub Singapore warned on Tuesday its economy could shrink by as much as 7% this year. EU leaders, meanwhile, will announce an unprecedented trillion-euro recovery package on Wednesday.

The virus has also had an immense political impact. 

US President Donald Trump weathered a torrent of criticism for playing golf as the death toll in his country neared 100,000 on the weekend. He later accused his critics in the media of being “sick with hatred and dishonesty.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government lurched into a crisis after his top aide Dominic Cummings refused to apologize for driving his family across the country during lockdown – prompting one junior minister to resign in protest.

Holy birthplace

But there were also signs of hope at some of the world’s best known and symbolic destinations.

In Bethlehem, the Church of the Nativity – built on the spot where Christians believe their saviour Jesus was born – reopened its doors after more than two months.

The church’s opening “gives hope to the world that this pandemic will end,” said Rula Maaya, Palestinian tourism minister. 

Fear of the virus spreading forced most countries to mothball their tourism industries – Palestinian officials earlier said the Covid-19 disease came to Bethlehem with a group of Greek tourists.

Nevertheless, in Italy – once the global epicenter of infections after it spread to Europe from China – the site of a previous natural disaster also reopened to visitors.

The ruins of the Roman city of Pompeii, destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 79 AD but preserved in a layer of ash, welcomed visitors for the first time in weeks.

But the site, which attracted four million visitors last year, was largely deserted on Tuesday as foreign visitors are still banned from travel to Italy until next month.

“It’s only us guides, and journalists,” sighed 48-year-old Valentina Raffone, noting a “sense of emptiness, of sadness” as if after a disaster on the scale of the city’s end.

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio said he was working with EU colleagues to agree on June 15 as a coordinated day for member states to reopen their borders and tourist regions.

“We should save what we can save of the summer, to aid our entrepreneurs,” he said.

The Vatican too has relaxed its lockdown, announcing that Pope Francis will address the faithful once more from his window overlooking Saint Peter’s Square on Sunday.

And Russia said it had passed its peak of infections, promising to hold postponed World War II victory celebrations next month.

“The risks for all participants should be minimised, or even better, eliminated,” President Vladimir Putin said.

His announcement came as Russia recorded its highest daily coronavirus death toll of 174, with a caseload of  362,342, the third-highest number of infections in the world after the United States and Brazil.

Spain provided further solemn reminders of the toll that the virus has taken, announcing that 10 days of mourning would start on Wednesday for the almost 27,000 people who have succumbed to the disease in the country.  

Massive stimulus

The European Union is attempting to launch its trillion-euro economic stimulus to speed the recovery from the pandemic. 

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will unveil her proposal on Wednesday, but EU capitals are likely to argue over the details with a coalition of four “frugal” states opposing too generous grants to the hard-hit south.

The economic tumult has brought many companies to their knees – the airline industry has been hit with massive job cuts and many firms have pleaded for help from governments and suffered further blows on Tuesday.

Latin America’s largest airline LATAM, which has more than 42,000 employees, became the latest carrier to file for bankruptcy.

And plans by Germany to help its ailing airline Lufthansa with a $9.8-billion rescue package in return for a 20% stake provoked a furious response from industry competitor Ryanair, which said it would appeal against the move.

“The German government continues to ignore EU rules when it suits them to subsidise large German companies, but then lectures every other EU government about respecting the rules when they ignore them,” said Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary on Tuesday. 

With the search for a vaccine potentially still in its infancy, the World Health Organization was left to ponder a very different development on Tuesday.

Two Dutch workers seem to have caught the disease from minks, which “would be the first known cases of animal-to-human transmission,” the UN health agency told AFP.

The agency said pet owners should take precautions but there was “no reason or justification to take measures against companion animals.”