Rio de Janeiro's samba schools usually spend the year furiously sewing costumes for the city's blowout Carnival celebration. Now, nimble fingers are working to protect lives instead, making medical outfits for hospital workers who face a surge of coronavirus patients.
Dr. Wille Baracho on Tuesday carried rolls of fabric into the Unidos de Padre Miguel samba school's workshop in the Vila Vintem favela. Inside, seamstresses perched on plastic chairs busily transformed beige and pale yellow fabric into medical wear.
The initiative started with Baracho and one of his colleagues at a nearby hospital emergency room where they have seen a shortage of materials. Both happen to sit on Padre Miguel's board and saw a chance to redirect labor. The city joined in, donating thousands of yards of fabric, and the seamstresses set to work Friday.
"We have some friends who died already, some who are on leave or sick with the disease," Baracho said, adding that he has found it more fulfilling to produce medical garb than the normal glittery costumes. "I think everyone here would say that. Carnival is a different happiness: fun, a pleasure. This is a mission."
The Unidos da Vila Isabel samba school joined the effort Tuesday, with two seamstresses getting to work in a warehouse. Behind them, huge blue and green feather headdresses sat on the floor.
More will start sewing soon, both from Vila Isabel and elsewhere as top samba schools across the city are expected to sign on, said Eneida Reis, executive director of assistance at RioSaude, a public company that manages municipal health units.
Every willing hand is welcome. At just a single municipal hospital treating COVID-19 patients, doctors and nurses can go through 2,000 sets of scrubs every day, according to city officials.
It's not Rio's first move to channel Carnival spirit toward combating the coronavirus. The parade grounds where samba schools compete, known as the Sambadrome, has started sheltering homeless people who are considered especially vulnerable during the outbreak.
Rio has Brazil's second-biggest cluster of COVID-19 patients, with 1,250 cases, plus a few hundred more in the surrounding metropolitan area, the state health secretariat says.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. But it can result in far more severe illness, including pneumonia and death, for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems.
At the Padre Miguel workshop, Jucelia Abreu and her fellow seamstresses feed fabric through their machines and snip at threads. Others from the samba school are doing the same at home. Together, the team churns out some 450 medical outfits each day.
"The directors asked us if we would be willing to volunteer, and I accepted, because it's very gratifying to help the people," Abreu said through a face mask. "We have to help."
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has declared a state of emergency in Tokyo and six other hard-hit Japanese prefectures to fortify the fight against the coronavirus outbreak. But this is no European or Wuhan-style lockdown. Here is a look at what Japan's state of emergency entails:
Q. WHY DID ABE DECLARE A STATE OF EMERGENCY?
A. Abe was facing heavy pressure to declare a state of emergency after the number of new cases in Tokyo began doubling every several days in late March. The city of 14 million had 1,196 cases as of Tuesday, up from about 600 a week earlier. Japan focused on dealing with clusters of infections and selective testing for the virus, a strategy that has failed to curb its spread. Experts found that one-third of Tokyo's recent cases were linked to hostess clubs and other night entertainment districts where cluster tracing is difficult. Meanwhile, compliance with calls for working remotely and other social distancing has been weak.
Q. IS ALL OF JAPAN AFFECTED?
A. The state of emergency announced Tuesday applies to only Tokyo, neighboring Chiba, Kanagawa and Saitama, Osaka, and Hyogo in the west and Fukuoka in the south. That is only seven of Japan's 47 prefectures. Residents are requested to avoid non-essential trips within and outside the designated areas, but there are no restrictions on travel. Some Tokyo residents drew criticism for rushing to escape from Tokyo to the countryside.
Q. DOES A STATE OF EMERGENCY CAUSE A TOKYO LOCKDOWN?
A. No, Abe and officials say Japan cannot legally enforce European-style hard lockdowns. Public transportation is operating as normal. Most state of emergency measures are requests and instructions. Violators cannot be punished unless they fail to comply with orders related to storage or shipment of emergency relief goods and medical supplies.
Q. WHY IS JAPAN NOT IMPOSING A HARD LOCKDOWN?
A. Japan's history of repression under fascist governments before and during World War II has left the public wary of government overreach. The country's postwar constitution lays out strict protections for civil liberties. Abe's government was reluctant to risk severe economic repercussions from more severe measures.
Q. WHAT MEASURES ARE TAKEN IN A STATE OF EMERGENCY?
A. The state of emergency allows prefectural leaders to ask residents to stay home. They can also request closures of schools, some child and senior care or community centers, and stores and businesses that are considered non-essential. They can advise organizers to cancel or postpone events. The governors can also request use of private property to build hospitals and other medical facilities.
Q. WHAT ARE ESSENTIAL ACTIVITIES?
A. Essential activities and facilities, including banks, grocery stores, postal services, pharmacies and utility companies remain open. Some retail stores and entertainment venues such as movie theaters, concert halls and amusement parks can be asked to shut down. Public schools in Tokyo and some neighboring prefectures already are closed until early May.
Q. CAN PEOPLE STILL GO OUT?
A. Yes, residents can be out for purposes considered essential, including work, hospital visits and grocery shopping, according to a Cabinet Office statement. Residents in designated areas can still go out for a walk, a jog or other individual exercise outdoors for the sake of good health.
Q. HOW EFFECTIVE IS THIS?
A. Abe on Wednesday repeated his request for the people to stay home and reduce interactions with people by up to 80%. But in the downtown Shibuya district, business was almost as usual. Rush hour trains were still crowded and commuters were heading to work, though fewer people were seen in other areas. Akihito Aminaka, an education industry worker, said heeding Abe's request was difficult, because "to me, it sounds like they're saying 'please don't go out, but we won't help you.'"
Q. WHAT'S THE POTENTIAL ECONOMIC IMPACT?
A. Abe also announced an unprecedented 108 trillion yen ($1 trillion) stimulus package, equivalent to about a fifth of annual GDP, to pay for coronavirus measures and protect businesses and jobs. It includes 300,000 yen ($2,750) cash handouts for some hard-hit households. A month-long state of emergency in Tokyo area could cause consumer spending to fall nearly 2.5 trillion yen ($23 billion), according to Nomura Research Institute.
Just weeks ago, cities and even states across the U.S. were busy banning straws, limiting takeout containers and mandating that shoppers bring reusable bags or pay a small fee as the movement to eliminate single-use plastics took hold in mainstream America.
What a difference a pandemic makes.
In a matter of days, hard-won bans to reduce the use of plastics — and particularly plastic shopping sacks — across the U.S. have come under fire amid worries about the virus clinging to reusable bags, cups and straws.
Governors in Massachusetts and Illinois have banned or strongly discouraged the use of reusable grocery bags. Oregon suspended its brand-new ban on plastic bags this week, and cities from Bellingham, Washington, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, have announced a hiatus on plastic bag bans as the coronavirus rages.
Add to that a rise in takeout and a ban on reusable cups and straws at the few coffee stores that remain open, and environmentalists worry COVID-19 could set back their efforts to tackle plastic pollution for years.
"People are scared for their lives, their livelihood, the economy, feeding their loved ones, so the environment is taking a back seat," said Glen Quadros, owner of the Great American Diner & Bar in Seattle.
Quadros has laid off 15 employees and seen a 60% decline in business since Seattle all but shut down to slow the pandemic. For now, he's using biodegradable containers for takeout and delivery, but those products cost up to three times more than plastic — and they're getting hard to find because of the surge in takeout, he said.
"The problem is, we don't know what's in store," Quadros said. "Everyone is in the same situation."
The plastics industry has seized the moment and is lobbying hard to overturn bans on single-use plastics by arguing disposable plastics are the safest option amid the crisis. California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont have statewide bans on plastic bags, and Oregon and California have laws limiting the use of plastic straws.
New York's statewide plastic bag ban is on hold because of a lawsuit.
The Plastics Industry Association recently sent a letter to Alex Azar, head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and asked him to speak out against plastic bag bans because they put consumers and workers at risk. And the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance is doubling down on its opposition to plastic bag bans under a preexisting campaign titled Bag the Ban.
Grocery worker unions, too, have joined the chorus. The union that represents Oregon supermarket workers is lobbying for a ban on reusable bags, and a Chicago union called for an "end to the disease-transmitting bag tax."
Critics argue people with reusable bags don't regularly wash them.
"If those bags coming into the store are contaminated with anything, they get put on the conveyor belt, the counter, and you're putting yourself in a bad spot," said Matt Seaholm, executive director of the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance. "It's an unnecessary risk."
A study by the U.S. National Institutes of Health found the novel coronavirus can remain on plastics and stainless steel for up to three days, and on cardboard for up to one day. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it appears possible for a person to get COVID-19 by touching a surface that has the virus on it and then touching their mouth, nose or eyes — but it's not thought that's the main way the virus spreads.
More studies are needed to fully assess the dangers posed by reusable bags, which are mostly made of fabric, said Dr. Jennifer Vines, lead health officer for the Portland metropolitan area.
"It's not clear that a virus that you can find on a surface — whether it's cloth or something else — is viable and can actually make you sick," she said.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
Some stores such as Trader Joe's and Target are letting customers use their own bags if they sack their groceries themselves, while others are banning them.
In Oregon, temporary rules now allow disposable "T-shirt" plastic bags with no fee to customers. Many stores ran out of paper bags amid a run on groceries, accelerating the move to ease plastic restrictions, said Joe Gilliam, president of the Northwest Grocery Association, which represents 1,000 retail locations in Oregon, Washington and Idaho.
"There are some stores out there that are saying, 'For the time being, please don't bring those in.' Other stores are allowing them, but ... right now we're asking that only freshly laundered ones come in," he said.
Environmental groups, well aware of the nation's current priorities, were at first unusually silent on moves to temporarily roll back plastic bag bans. But they responded forcefully after the plastics industry asserted bag bans could worsen the pandemic's toll.
"The fear-driven gains the industry was able to win this month are likely to be extremely short-lived," said John Hocevar, of Greenpeace USA. "The movement away from throwaway plastic is the kind of awakening that is not going to be that easy for the plastic industry to stop."
In the meantime, some consumers are getting taken by surprise.
Paul McNamara, who has used his own bags for a decade, said he was stopped at the entrance of his regular market in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, after the state enacted a temporary ban on reusable shopping sacks. His ratty bags have corners reinforced with duct tape from years of use; he instead left with his groceries in plastic bags.
"My question would be, will it become permanent?" McNamara said. "I'm fine with the restrictions on reusable plastics. It makes a lot of sense, and that's the way to go for the environment. But if it's a public health issue, we've got to figure out some way to deal with it."
After more than two months indoors, Wuhan resident Tong Zhengkun was one of millions of people enjoying a renewed sense of freedom Wednesday when the Chinese city's 76-day coronavirus lockdown was lifted.
"I haven't been outside for more than 70 days," an emotional Tong said as he watched a celebratory light display from a bridge across the broad Yangtze River flowing through the city. "Being indoors for so long drove me crazy."
Streets in the city of 11 million people were clogged with traffic and long lines formed at the airport, train and bus stations as thousands streamed out of the city to return to homes and jobs elsewhere. Yellow barriers that had blocked off some streets were gone, although the gates to residential compounds remained guarded.
Tong said his apartment complex was shut down after residents were found to have contracted the virus. Neighborhood workers delivered groceries to his door.
Such measures won't be entirely abandoned following the end of the city's closure, which began on Jan. 23 as the virus was raging through the city and overwhelming hospitals. Schools are still closed, temperatures are checked when people enter buildings and masks are strongly encouraged. City leaders say they want is to simultaneously bring back social and commercial life while avoiding a second wave of infections.
The ability to travel again is a huge relief, however, and around 65,000 were expected to depart Wednesday by plane and train. Wuhan residents are now permitted to leave without special authorization as long as a mandatory smartphone application powered by a mix of data-tracking and government surveillance shows they are healthy and have not been in recent contact with anyone confirmed to have the virus.
It didn't take long for traffic to begin moving swiftly through the reopened bridges, tunnels and highway toll booths. Nearly 1,000 vehicles went through a busy highway toll booth at Wuhan's border between midnight — when barricades were lifted — and 7 a.m, according to Yan Xiangsheng, a district police chief.
According to airport official Lou Guowei, the first departing flight, MU2527, left Wuhan Tianhe International Airport at 7:25 a.m. for Sanya, a coastal city in Hainan province known for its beaches.
"The crew will wear goggles, masks, and gloves throughout the flight," chief flight attendant Guo Binxue, was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency. "It will be very smooth because we have made much preparation for this flight."
Xiao Yonghong had found herself stuck in Wuhan after returning to her hometown on Jan. 17 to spend the Lunar New Year with her husband, son and parents-in-law.
"We were too excited to fall asleep last night. I was looking forward to lockdown lift very much. I set up an alert to remind myself. I was very happy," said Xiao, who was waiting for her train outside Hankou station with her son and husband, all three of them wearing masks and gloves.
At the airport, Chen Yating took personal protection a step further, wearing white coveralls, gloves, a mask and a baseball cap. She was waiting to catch a flight to the southern business hub of Guangzhou.
"We are living in a good era," Chen said. "It is not easy to have today's achievement."
Restrictions in the city where most of China's more than 82,000 virus cases and over 3,300 deaths from COVID-19 were reported have been gradually eased as the number of new cases steadily declined. The government reported no new cases in the city on Wednesday.
While there are questions about the veracity of China's count, the unprecedented lockdown of Wuhan and Hubei have been successful enough that other countries adopted similar measures.
"The people in Wuhan paid out a lot and bore a lot mentally and psychologically," resident Zhang Xiang said. "Wuhan people are historically famous for their strong will."
During the lockdown, Wuhan residents could leave their homes only to buy food or attend to other tasks deemed absolutely necessary. Some were allowed to leave the city, but only if they had paperwork showing they were not a health risk and a letter attesting to where they were going and why. Even then, authorities could turn them back on a technicality such as missing a stamp, preventing thousands from returning to their jobs outside the city.
Residents of other parts of Hubei were allowed to leave the province starting about three weeks ago, as long as they could provide a clean bill of health. People leaving the city still face numerous hurdles at their final destinations, such as 14-day quarantines and nucleic acid tests.
Wuhan is a major center for heavy industry, particularly autos, and while many major plants have restarted production, the small and midsize businesses that employ the most people are still hurting from both a lack of workers and demand. Measures are being instituted to get them back on their feet, including 20 billion yuan ($2.8 billion) in preferential loans, according to the city government.
The exact source of the virus remains under investigation, though many of the first COVID-19 patients were linked to an outdoor food market in the city.
As New York City faced one of its darkest days with the death toll from the coronavirus surging past 4,000 — more than the number killed on 9/11 — the Chinese city where the global pandemic began lifted its final restrictions on movement Wednesday as deaths there plummeted.
The tale of two cities came as the coronavirus crisis continued to strain health care systems from Europe to North America, roil global stock markets, and strand international travelers behind closed borders. In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson remained in intensive care, the first major world leader confirmed to have COVID-19.
Despite the staggering death toll in America's largest city, authorities in New York were optimistic that the outbreak might finally be easing, as has been seen in other global hot spots such as Italy and Spain and before that, China. Health officials, however, warned people not to let their guard down.
The virus toll in New York City is now more than 1,000 deaths higher than that of the deadliest terro attack on U.S. soil, which killed 2,753 people in the city and 2,977 overall.
After recording more than 500 deaths a day since late last week, New York state recorded 731 new coronavirus deaths on Tuesday, its biggest one-day jump yet, for a statewide toll of nearly 5,500, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.
"Behind every one of those numbers is an individual. There's a family, there's a mother, there's a father, there's a sister, there's a brother. So a lot of pain again today for many New Yorkers," Cuomo said.
In an encouraging sign, the governor said hospital admissions and the number of people receiving breathing tubes are dropping. And the death toll itself is a "lagging indicator," reflecting people who had been hospitalized before this week, he said.
But he warned that gains are dependent on people continuing to practice social distancing.
"It still depends on what we do, and what we do will affect those numbers," he said.
In Wuhan — the Chinese city of 11 million that was the first in the world to go on lockdown — tens of thousands of people streamed out of town by plane and train alone as harsh restrictions on movement were finally lifted. Citizens waved flags and the city staged a light show with skyscrapers and bridges radiating animated images of health workers aiding patients.
Restrictions in the city where most of China's more than 82,000 virus cases and over 3,300 deaths were reported have been gradually eased in recent weeks as the number of new cases steadily declined. The government reported no new cases Wednesday, though there have been questions about the veracity of China's count.
"I haven't been outside for more than 70 days," said an emotional Tong Zhengkun, who was watching the display. Residents in his apartment complex had contracted the virus so they couldn't go out even to buy groceries, which neighborhood workers delivered.
"Being indoors for so long drove me crazy," he said.
In London, the 55-year-old Johnson was in stable condition and conscious at a hospital, where he was receiving oxygen but was not on a ventilator, officials said. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was designated to run the country in the meantime.
"I'm confident he'll pull through because if there's one thing I know about this prime minister, he's a fighter," Raab said.
Deaths in Britain reached nearly 6,200, after a one-day increase of almost 800.
In France, the number of dead climbed to more than 10,300, said Jerome Salomon, national health director.
"We are in the epidemic's ascendant stage," he said. "We have not yet reached the peak."
In other European hot spots, authorities saw signs that the outbreak was turning a corner, based on slowdowns in new deaths and hospitalizations.
In Spain, new deaths Tuesday rose to 743 and infections climbed by 5,400 after five days of declines, but the increases were believed to reflect a weekend backlog. Authorities said they were confident in the downward trend.
In Italy, the hardest-hit country of all with over 17,000 deaths, authorities appealed to people ahead of Easter weekend not to lower their guard and to abide by a lockdown now in its fifth week, even as new cases dropped to a level not seen since the early weeks of the outbreak.
On Wall Stock street Tuesday, a strong rally propelled by signs that the outbreak may be leveling off evaporated after the price of crude oil suddenly fell. Stocks ended the day slightly lower. Asian markets followed mostly lower Wednesday.
Across the U.S., the death toll topped 12,900, with nearly 400,000 confirmed infections. Some of the deadliest hot spots were Detroit, New Orleans and the New York metropolitan area, which includes parts of Long Island, New Jersey and Connecticut.
In Wisconsin, after a legal battle that reached the Supreme Court, voters were asked to ignore a stay-at-home order to participate in its presidential primary.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump threatened to freeze U.S. funding to the World Health Organization, saying the international group had "missed the call" on the pandemic.
Trump said the international group had "called it wrong" on the virus and that the organization was "very China-centric" in its approach, suggesting that the WHO had gone along with Beijing's efforts months ago to minimize the severity of the outbreak.
The virus continued to affect global travel, and cruise ships in particular. More than half of the 217 people on a ship off Uruguay's coast tested positive for the coronavirus. The Australian operator of the Greg Mortimer ship said no one had symptoms and it was working to disembark the crew and passengers — many from Australia, Europe and the U.S. — and arrange their return home.
Worldwide, about 1.4 million people have been confirmed infected and more than 82,000 have died, according to Johns Hopkins University. The true numbers are almost certainly much higher, because of limited testing, different rules for counting the dead and deliberate underreporting by some governments.
For most people, the virus causes mild to moderate symptoms such as fever and cough. But for some, especially older adults and the infirm, it can cause pneumonia. About 300,000 people have recovered worldwide, by Johns Hopkins' count.