Sony Net Profit Jumps 53.3% In Q1 But Virus Clouds Annual Outlook

Sony CEO Kenichiro Yoshida arrives to take part in a press conference at the Sony headquarters in Tokyo on May 22, 2018. PHOTO: Martin BUREAU / AFP

Sony said Tuesday its net profit surged 53.3 percent in the first quarter, but warned annual profits were likely to see double-digit falls as the coronavirus pandemic continues to cloud the forecast.

The PlayStation giant said net profit for the April-June quarter reached 233.25 billion yen ($2.2 billion), with “significant increases” in its game and network services and financial services segments.

The surge was also helped by a strong performance in equities, which pushed up the firm’s pre-tax income.

Operating profit, however, slipped 1.1 percent to 228.39 billion yen on sales of 1.97 trillion yen, up 2.2 percent.

While global demand for games downloads spiked this year as lockdowns forced people to stay at home, the pandemic has brought a string of negative factors for Sony, including a slump in manufacturing, music event cancellations and movie theatre shutdowns.

“Lockdowns have continued affecting Sony’s production lines while hitting hard sales of its electronics products and at theatre-release movies,” Hideki Yasuda, an analyst at Ace Research Institute in Tokyo, told AFP ahead of the results.

“It was quite a tough quarter for Sony, as negative factors outnumbered positive ones. Sony is still expected to recover gradually for the rest of the fiscal year but on the condition that a major second wave of the pandemic doesn’t emerge.”

If there is a serious resurgence of the virus, “it will be a different story,” Yasuda warned.

It warned annual net profit for the year to March would drop 12.4 percent to 510 billion yen, with annual operating profit dropping 26.7 percent to 620 billion yen,.

Annual sales are seen edging up 0.5 percent to 8.3 trillion yen.

The much-anticipated next version of the PlayStation is expected later this year, which analysts say has helped to sustain the firm’s share price.

During the April-June period, the company’s mainstay game segment saw sales rise 32 percent thanks to robust demand for titles and related services, with the segment’s annual sales also on course to rise 26 percent.

But the news elsewhere was less positive, with sales falling 12 percent in the music division and six percent in the movie segment.

The firm’s electronics products business registered a whopping 31-percent plunge in sales, hit by the pandemic and unfavourable foreign exchange rates.

For the year ahead, much is riding on how the PS5 performs, Yasuda told AFP.

“But it’s too early to assess the new console’s popularity. No one can predict precisely how it will perform before its launch.”

-AFP

Markets Mixed As Investors Track Second Wave, New Lockdowns

People walk through a shopping area in Tokyo on May 12, 2020. Kazuhiro NOGI / AFP.

 

Equities were mixed Wednesday in Asia after a healthy run-up the day before as traders weigh positive data suggesting economies are recovering against signs of a second wave of infections and the reintroduction of some lockdowns.

While governments and central banks have provided a wall of cash to support markets, investors are walking a tightrope between hopes the easing of restrictions will lead to a rebound and the possibility that looser measures will inflame the pandemic again.

After a rally across most regional bourses Tuesday, Wall Street and Europe followed suit after figures pointed to a big improvement in eurozone private-sector activity in June as well as a jump in US new home sales.

Meanwhile, several countries continued to loosen up, including in Britain where pubs, restaurants, hotels and cinemas were told they could open again from July 4.

“Through the lens of survey data, at least for now, the world’s essential economies are seeing a V-shaped and coordinated rebound that looks set to (continue) through the summer in the northern hemisphere,” said Stephen Innes at AxiCorp. “Fingers crossed a second wave super spread does not land in our lap.”

However, there are growing concerns of a relapse in some countries that had been opening up, with Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike on Wednesday warning a number of new cases had been found at one workplace.

READ ALSO: COVID-19 Crisis Sinks Global Economy In 2020, Collapsing GDP 4.9% – IMF

That comes after Germany reimposed containment measures in two western districts — home to almost 640,000 people — after an outbreak at a slaughterhouse infected more than 1,500 workers.

Portugal has also announced new restrictions in and around Lisbon.

And leading US health officials headed by top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci warned of “historic” challenges, adding: “COVID-19 activity will likely continue for some time.”

Fauci warned the next two weeks would be “critical to our ability to address… surgings” in Florida, Texas and other states.

Tokyo and Singapore each lost 0.1 percent, Hong Kong dipped 0.5 percent and there were also losses in Manila.

Sydney added 0.2 percent, Shanghai gained 0.3, Mumbai added 0.5 percent and Taipei put on 0.4 percent with Wellington and Jakarta more than one percent higher.

Seoul climbed 1.5 percent with help coming from a report that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has suspended plans for military action against the South in an apparent easing of tensions just over a week after Pyongyang blew up a liaison office.

London, Frankfurt and Paris were all in the red in early trade.

While equities have been on a generally upward trajectory, gold — a key safe haven in times of uncertainty — has also been on the up as the relatively weak dollar makes it cheaper to buy, while investors are also keeping an eye on a fall-back in case the crisis erupts again.

The yellow metal is up around 17 percent since the end of December and sitting at a seven-and-a-half-year high of $1,775.

“Historically the metal has rallied when stocks have sold off as funds typically flowed towards assets that are deemed to be lower risk,” said CMC Markets analyst David Madden.

“The rise of the US dollar as a risk-off play has distorted the old relationship between gold and attitudes towards risk. Recently we have seen gold and stocks move higher in tandem.”

– Key figures around 0810 GMT –

Tokyo – Nikkei 225: DOWN 0.1 percent at 22,534.32 (close)

Hong Kong – Hang Seng: DOWN 0.5 percent at 24,781.58 (close)

Shanghai – Composite: UP 0.3 percent at 2,979.55 (close)

London – FTSE 100: DOWN 0.8 percent at 6,271.71

West Texas Intermediate: UP 0.1 percent at $40.39 per barrel

Brent North Sea crude: UP 0.3 percent at $42.77 per barrel

Euro/dollar: DOWN at $1.1293 from $1.1308 at 2050 GMT

Dollar/yen: UP at 106.61 yen from 106.53 yen

Pound/dollar: DOWN at $1.2480 from $1.2520

Euro/pound: UP at 90.48 pence from 90.30 pence

New York – Dow: UP 0.5 percent at 26,156.10 (close).

AFP

 

WHO Calls For New Lockdowns In Pakistan As COVID-19 Surges

This picture taken on April 24, 2020 shows a sign of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva next to their headquarters, amid the COVID-19 outbreak, caused by the novel coronavirus. Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP
This picture taken on April 24, 2020 shows a sign of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva next to their headquarters, amid the COVID-19 outbreak, caused by the novel coronavirus.
Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

 

The World Health Organization has told Pakistan it should implement “intermittent” lockdowns to counter a surge in coronavirus infections that has come as the country loosens restrictions, officials said.

Since the start of Pakistan’s outbreak in March, Prime Minister Imran Khan opposed a nationwide lockdown of the sort seen elsewhere, arguing the impoverished country could not afford it.

Instead, Pakistan’s four provinces ordered a patchwork of closures, but last week Khan said most of these restrictions would be lifted.

Health officials on Wednesday declared a record number of new cases in the past 24 hours. The country has now confirmed a total of more than 113,000 cases and 2,200 deaths — though with testing still limited, real rates are thought to be much higher.

“As of today, Pakistan does not meet any of the pre-requisite conditions for opening the lockdown”, the WHO said in a letter confirmed by Pakistan officials on Tuesday.

Many people have not adopted behavioural changes such as social distancing and frequent hand-washing, meaning “difficult” decisions will be required including “intermittent lockdowns” in targeted areas, the letter states.

READ ALSO: Elevated Extreme Poverty To Persist Through 2021 – World Bank

Some 25 percent of tests in Pakistan come back positive for COVID-19, the WHO said, indicating high levels of infection in the general population.

The health body recommended an intermittent lockdown cycle of two weeks on, two weeks off.

Responding to the WHO’s letter, Zafar Mirza, the prime minister’s special advisor for health, said the country had “consciously but gradually” eased lockdowns while enforcing guidelines in shops, mosques and public transport.

“We have to make tough policy choices to strike a balance between lives and livelihoods,” Mirza said Wednesday.

Punjab’s provincial health minister Yasmin Rashid, who received the WHO’s letter, said the provincial government had already given “orders to take strict action against those violating” virus guidelines.

Hospitals across Pakistan say they are at or near capacity, and some are turning COVID-19 patients away.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Monday that 136,000 cases had been reported in the previous 24 hours, “the most in a single day so far”, with the majority of them in South Asia and the Americas.

AFP

Airlines Improvise Gradual Liftoff As Lockdowns Ease

Passengers lineup to check-in outside the Indira Gandhi International airport during the first day of resuming of domestic flights after the government imposed a nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in New Delhi on May 25, 2020. Money SHARMA / AFP.

 

Cabin crews on standby with destinations revealed only hours before the flight, pilots put on simulators to keep up to date — an airline restarting after the pandemic is a far cry from the clockwork precision of the pre-coronavirus world.

“Flexibility” is the top priority, Lufthansa chief executive Carsten Spohr said last week, as the airline has “developed completely new procedures in flight and route planning”.

As borders slammed shut to halt virus transmission, about 90 percent of passenger connections at the German airline fell away, leaving an “emergency” timetable comparable to the 1950s.

Daily passengers dwindled to 3,000 from the usual 350,000.

With the peak of the crisis over in Europe, the airline is plotting its restart — and the entire operation has been forced to act more nimbly to cope.

For Lufthansa crews, the inch-by-inch progress means “they have almost no fixed shifts any more, only on-call periods”, Spohr said.

READ ALSO: Elevated Extreme Poverty To Persist Through 2021 – World Bank

“They know how quickly they have to make it to the airport and that they should be nearby, and then they get a few hours’ notice about where they’re going.”

“Methods we’ve always used to patch over problems have become the standard,” he added.

Some flights, like the first India-bound service, have been dropped almost at the last moment for lack of landing authorisation.

– High hurdles –

At the same time, “demand is far less predictable than usual”, a spokesman for Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways said.

At Lufthansa, there have been cases where “colleagues all at once had to add a second flight in parallel” to meet high demand — including on a busy May holiday weekend when “I myself and our family” were on a waiting list, Spohr said.

“Historic data we’ve gathered over decades are useless for flight planning in the near future,” said chief financial officer Thorsten Dirks, explaining that Lufthansa’s “artificial intelligence has to be re-trained” to address the altered situation.

“In these cases, human beings are faster and more flexible.”

Flight and cabin crew on standby through the period must also be kept up to date.

Some pilots have been flying simulators to stay in touch, with Etihad running courses every 45 days as 80 percent of its fleet was grounded in April.

Meanwhile other airlines like Senegal’s Transair have been operating empty flights to maintain pilots’ licences.

Around 700 of Lufthansa’s 763 aircraft were grounded at the peak of the lockdowns, parked in orderly rows on the apron of Frankfurt airport — and even taking up one of the runways.

After up to three months of inactivity, planes “can be reactivated in one or two days”, Lufthansa spokeswoman Lara Matuschek said.

Any longer time out means placing them into “deep storage”, with steps like antibacterial treatments for the empty fuel tanks.

“There are much higher hurdles to reactivation” from deep storage, and “it can take up to four weeks” as more extensive maintenance work may be needed, Matuschek explained.

– Refunds –

From early June, the German juggernaut has been offering more routes, aiming to serve 90 percent of short-haul and 70 percent of long-haul destinations by September.

But it will only offer around 40 percent of its usual capacity and has been forced to turn to Berlin for a nine-billion-euro ($10.1 billion) bailout.

In Asia, Singapore Airlines expects “two days to a week” to reactivate aircraft.

The carrier will offer 12 additional destinations in June and July, but its network remains pared back with just 32 of its normal 135 routes and six percent of pre-pandemic capacity.

In Japan, a gradual journey back to normal has begun for JAL and ANA, with the latter offering 30 percent of normal flights in June after 15 percent in May.

Emirates, the biggest Middle Eastern carrier, expects a return to normal traffic levels to take up to four years.

Meanwhile, Lufthansa’s call centres have been burdened with cancellations and re-bookings, with reimbursements alone running into hundreds of millions of euros per month.

“The more we bring the system back online, the more efficient we have to become,” Spohr said.

“But you can’t work this way long-term in a company our size and hope to make money.”

AFP

COVID-19 Travel Bans Separate Families Even As Lockdowns Ease

People shop at the outdoor market and walk about in central Rome on May 9, 2020, during the country’s partial lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of the COVID-19 infection, caused by the novel coronavirus. Tiziana FABI / AFP.

 

When Julie Sergent’s father died, she faced an agonising decision: if she travelled from her home in Japan to attend the funeral in France, she wouldn’t be allowed back.

Across Asia, domestic lockdowns imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus are easing, but international travel restrictions in the region remain tight.

Many countries have banned non-citizens from entry or even closed their borders altogether, with devastating consequences for some living far from family.

In Japan, citizens can leave and re-enter the country. Those coming from designated high-risk areas are tested for the virus on arrival and asked to observe a quarantine.

But foreign residents, even those with long-term ties or married to Japanese citizens, cannot do the same.

That put Sergent in an impossible situation when her father died suddenly in April: if she left for France, she would be stranded there.

READ ALSO: Cyprus Welcomes First Tourist Flights Since March

“I might lose my job, my apartment, my income for quite a while,” she said.

The 29-year-old was told she might be able to apply for a humanitarian exemption, but with just two days before the funeral, there wasn’t time.

“My mother was devastated. I was the only one in the family who couldn’t attend my father’s funeral,” she told AFP.

“My brother and sister described to me how they wrote a message on a little piece of paper and placed it on his jacket. And that was something I couldn’t do,” she added, her voice cracking.

– ‘There’s no one else’ –

Yukari, who asked to be identified by her first name only, faces a similar situation.

She is half-American, half-Japanese and lives in Tokyo with her Japanese husband and their nine-year-old son.

But she doesn’t have Japanese citizenship and faces being separated from her son and husband if she travels to the United States, where her mother is battling cancer.

“I’m… (the) only immediate family that she has. There’s no one else… in the US,” she told AFP.

Her mother was diagnosed with bile duct cancer in March, and in April her doctor warned she might have just weeks to live.

Ordinarily, Yukari would have taken the first flight out, but instead, she was forced to rely on friends of the family to help her mother.

After a touch-and-go period, her mother’s health has stabilised, though the cancer has not gone away.

“I talked to her helpers, and one of them said ‘I think she’s holding on, to see you one more time.’ That was hard to hear.”

– Humanitarian exceptions? –

Elsewhere in Asia, the rules are even stricter, with countries like Mongolia effectively sealing its borders altogether. Even citizens are only able to re-enter the country on rare evacuation flights.

That has left people like Nyamtseren Erdenetsetseg and her husband Sukhbaatar Dorj, who are stuck in South Korea, with no way back and no idea when they will see their children in Mongolia again.

The couple went to South Korea in January to visit Erdenetsetseg’s mother, who lives in Seoul. They left their five children with Dorj’s mother while they were away.

But on February 23, Mongolia announced it was banning entry from South Korea, leaving the couple stranded.

They tried in vain to get a seat on an evacuation flight, and then on May 3, Dorj’s mother died suddenly.

His sister has taken in the couple’s children, who ask their parents on phone calls when they will be back.

“I don’t say anything,” Erdenetsetseg said. “I don’t want to get their hopes up for nothing.”

She has even considered allowing her Korean visa to expire instead of extending it, in the hope authorities would deport her. But doing that would mean she would be banned from South Korea in the future.

In some places, there are signs of tentative changes. China has begun relaxing travel caps for some foreign firms and is increasing the number of international flights.

And in early June, Japan’s government said foreign residents now “may be granted” humanitarian exceptions to the ban, potentially offering Yukari an opportunity to see her mother.

“I just pray that… I can go and see her one last time.”

AFP

Lockdowns Averted Three Million Deaths In 11 European Nations – Study

People cycle with their bike down the Rue de Rivoli, by the Louvre museum, in Paris on May 19, 2020 as France eases lockdown measures taken to curb the spread of the COVID-19 (the novel coronavirus). THOMAS COEX / AFP
People cycle with their bike down the Rue de Rivoli, by the Louvre museum, in Paris on May 19, 2020 as France eases lockdown measures taken to curb the spread of the COVID-19 (the novel coronavirus). THOMAS COEX / AFP

 

Lockdowns prevented around 3.1 million deaths in 11 European countries, according to a new modelling study published Monday, as most nations tiptoe out of the strict measures to halt the spread of the new coronavirus.

Research by Imperial College London, whose scientists are advising the British government on the virus, found that restrictions such as stay-at-home orders had worked to bring the epidemic under control.

Using European Centre of Disease Control data on deaths in 11 nations in the period up to May 4, they compared the number of observed deaths in the countries against those predicted by their model if no restrictions had been imposed.

They estimated that approximately 3.1 million deaths had been averted by the policies.

Researchers also calculated that the interventions had caused the reproduction number — how many people someone with the virus infects — to drop by an average of 82 per cent, to below 1.0.

“Our results show that major non-pharmaceutical interventions, and lockdown in particular, have had a large effect on reducing transmission,” the authors said in the study, published in Nature Research.

READ ALSO: Pandemic Drives Broadest Economic Collapse In 150 Years – World Bank

“Continued intervention should be considered to keep transmission of SARS-CoV-2 under control.”

The researchers estimated that cumulatively between 12 and 15 million people had been infected in the period — or between 3.2 and four per cent of the population of the 11 nations.

This fluctuated significantly between countries, with only 710,000 people in Germany thought to have caught the virus, or 0.85 per cent of the population.

That compares with Belgium, with the highest infection rate of the countries at eight percent, and Spain, where some 5.5 per cent of the population, or 2.6 million people, were estimated to have been infected.

– ‘Large health benefits’ –

The authors said that since interventions such as restrictions on public events and school closures were imposed in quick succession, it is difficult to tease out the effect of each one separately.

But they found that lockdown measures taken as a whole did have an identifiable and “substantial” effect, reducing transmission by an estimated 81 per cent.

The 11 nations were: Germany, France, Italy, Britain, Spain, Belgium, Austria, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland.

The authors acknowledged that one limitation of their model was that it assumes each measure had the same effect on all countries, whereas in reality “there was variation in how effective lockdown was in different countries”.

In a separate study, also published in Nature, researchers from UC Berkeley used a different method — econometric modelling used to assess how policies affect economic growth — to evaluate containment policies in China, South Korea, Italy, Iran, France and the United States.

Researchers used data on daily infection rates and the timings of hundreds of localised interventions up until April 6. They then compared infection growth rates before and after those policies were implemented.

By comparing this to a scenario in which no policies had been put in place, they estimated that the interventions may have prevented or delayed around 62 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 across the six countries.

They said this corresponded to averting around 530 million total infections.

AFP

COVID-19 Lockdowns Stifle Eid-El-Fitr Celebrations

This picture, taken early on May 24, 2020, shows an Imam in a podium while Saudi security forces members, some clad in masks due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, stand between rows of worshippers gathering before the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia’s holy city of Mecca to attend the prayers of Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday which starts at the conclusion of the holy fasting month of Ramadan. AFP

 

 

Muslims around the world began marking a sombre Eid al-Fitr Sunday, many under coronavirus lockdown, but lax restrictions offer respite to worshippers in some countries despite fears of skyrocketing infections.

The three-day festival, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, is traditionally celebrated with mosque prayers, family feasts and shopping for new clothes, gifts and sweet treats.

But this year, the celebration is overshadowed by the fast-spreading coronavirus, with many countries tightening lockdown restrictions after a partial easing during Ramadan led to a sharp spike in infections.

Further dampening the festive spirit, many countries — from Saudi Arabia to Egypt, Turkey and Syria — have banned mass prayer gatherings, a festival highlight, to limit the spread of the disease.

Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest sites, began a five-day, round-the-clock curfew from Saturday after infections more than quadrupled since the start of Ramadan to over 70,000 — the highest in the Gulf.

Mecca’s Grand Mosque has been almost devoid of worshippers since March, with a stunning emptiness enveloping the sacred Kaaba — the large cube-shaped structure towards which Muslims around the world pray.

READ ALSO: Nigeria Marks Eid-El-Fitr Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

But on Sunday, an imam stood on a podium while Saudi security forces, some wearing masks, stood between rows of worshippers gathering before the Kaaba to perform Eid prayers — their prayer mats placed in well-spaced arcs.

At Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site after Mecca and Medina, prayers were not permitted inside, although the site is expected to reopen after the Eid holiday.

At dawn, small scuffles broke out between Israeli security forces and worshippers gathering around the mosque, although prayers eventually went ahead outside, an AFP photographer said.

In Gaza, Hamas authorities allowed prayers in mosques despite the enclave’s first coronavirus death on Saturday, but worshippers mostly wore masks and placed their prayer mats far apart.

“Eid is not Eid with the atmosphere of corona — people feel a sense of fear,” worshipper Akram Taher told AFP.

– Fears of ‘new peak’ –

Muslims across Asia — from Indonesia to Pakistan, Malaysia and Afghanistan — have thronged markets for festival shopping, flouting coronavirus guidelines and sometimes even police attempts to disperse large crowds.

“For over two months my children were homebound,” said Ishrat Jahan, a mother of four, at a bustling market in the Pakistani city of Rawalpindi.

“This feast is for the kids, and if they can’t celebrate it with new garments, there is no point in us working so hard throughout the year.”

But the holiday began on a sombre note after a Pakistan International Airline flight crashed in the southern city of Karachi on Friday, killing 97 people including many who were travelling to see family for the holiday.

The English daily Dawn said the crash, along with the pandemic, had robbed the country of “whatever little joy had been left at the prospect of Eid festivities.”

In Indonesia — the world’s most populous Muslim nation — people have turned to smugglers and fake travel documents to get around bans on the annual end-of-Ramadan travel that could send infections soaring.

In the conservative province of Aceh, large groups prayed together with few masks and little social distancing, and the Baiturrahman Grand Mosque in the provincial capital was packed.

“I did feel worried but as a Muslim, I still had to perform mass Eid prayers as a form of gratitude to Allah,” one worshipper, Arsi, told AFP.

COVID-19 death tolls across the Middle East and Asia have been lower than in Europe and the United States, but numbers are rising steadily, sparking fears the virus may overwhelm often underfunded healthcare systems.

Iran, which has experienced the Middle East’s deadliest outbreak, has called on its citizens to avoid travel during Eid as it battles to control infection rates.

Health Minister Saeed Namaki said the country was focusing hard on avoiding “new peaks of the disease” caused by people “not respecting health regulations”.

– ‘Comedy night’ –

The United Arab Emirates has tightened its lockdown which had been relaxed during Ramadan, but that has not stopped some families from planning getaways to luxury beachfront hotels.

However, Muslims in many countries are set for frugal celebrations amid growing financial distress.

The twin shocks of coronavirus restrictions and falling oil prices have plunged the region into the worst economic crisis in decades.

The lockdowns have hit businesses hard, including retailers who would normally be preparing for the festive rush, as Muslims save their money for masks, gloves and other COVID-19 protective gear.

In the Syrian capital Damascus, Eid shoppers rummaged through flea markets for clothes at bargain prices as the war-ravaged and sanctions-hit country grapples with a much more entrenched economic crisis.

“The flea market is the only place I can buy something new to wear for the Eid holidays,” 28-year-old Sham Alloush told AFP.

“Had it not been for this place, I wouldn’t have been able to buy new clothes at all.”

But promising some laughs in these dire times, 40 Muslim comedians from across the world will host a virtual show on Sunday called “The Socially Distant Eid Comedy Night”.

“This Ramadan has been particularly difficult for communities around the world,” said Muddassar Ahmed, head of the Concordia Forum, the organiser of the event.

“We’re proud to be pulling together some of the brightest Muslim comedic talents to entertain those celebrating the Eid festival at home, people looking to learn a little bit about Muslim culture, or really anyone in need of a good laugh.”

AFP

UN Tells Firms To Make Worker Returns Safe As COVID-19 Lockdowns Ease

(FILES) In this file photo, The United Nations flag is seen during the Climate Action Summit 2019 at the United Nations General Assembly Hall on September 23, 2019, in New York City. Ludovic MARIN / AFP.

 

As some countries begin to ease their lockdown restrictions, governments and employers must prepare workplaces and ensure people can return safely to prevent a resurgence of COVID-19, the UN said Tuesday.

In a new study, the International Labour Organization stressed the importance of ensuring that workplaces meet strict occupational safety and health criteria before allowing people to return to their jobs, in order to minimise their exposure to the novel coronavirus.

“Without such controls, countries face the very real risk of a resurgence of the virus,” the United Nations agency said in a statement.

The ILO’s report comes as a number of European countries are beginning to gingerly scale back lockdown measures, and as authorities in China, which began loosening restrictions last month, fear a second COVID-19 wave could be looming.

The report stressed that by putting in place a range of measures, employers can minimise the risk of a second wave of contagion contracted at the workplace.

“The safety and health of our entire workforce is paramount,” ILO chief Guy Ryder said in the statement.

READ MORE: France To Reveal How COVID-19 Lockdown Will Be Eased

“In the face of an infectious disease outbreak, how we protect our workers now clearly dictates how safe our communities are, and how resilient our businesses will be, as this pandemic evolves,” he stressed.

“It is only by implementing occupational safety and health measures that we can protect the lives of workers, their families and the larger communities, ensure work continuity and economic survival.”

The pandemic, which has killed more than 200,000 people worldwide and infected nearly three million, has taken a devastating toll on economies and businesses around the globe.

After weeks with more than half of humanity told to stay home, many governments and employers are eager to get back to business.

But the ILO highlighted the dangers of allowing people return to their workplaces, stressing the need to prepare properly.

Tuesday’s report stressed that risk control measures should be especially adapted to the needs of workers at the frontline of the pandemic, like health workers and those in food retail, but stressed that other workplaces also needed strategies to deal with the COVID-19 threat.

– ‘Respiratory etiquette’ –

Employers, it said, should map hazards and assess risks of contagion in relation to all work operations, and should continue to make such assessments after work resumes.

They should also adopt risk control measures adapted to each sector and each workplace, including for instance reducing physical interactions between workers, contractors, customers and visitors, improving ventilation, regularly cleaning surfaces, and providing protective gear like masks to any workers who need it.

Most importantly perhaps, according to ILO occupational safety and health expert Manal Azzi, is to remind people of the basic hygiene rules, like frequent hand-washing, covering sneezes and coughs, and keeping a proper physical distance.

“You still see people not respecting respiratory etiquette. So these are basic things that we need to be raising awareness on,” she told reporters in a virtual briefing.

She also suggested that companies could leave doors open “so people don’t have to touch handles.”

Employers should also provide mental health support for staff, ILO said.

AFP