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Spanish Civil Protection volunteers distribute face masks in Ronda, on April 13, 2020.

JORGE GUERRERO/AFP/Getty Images

As the coronavirus pandemic throws millions out of work and devastates economies worldwide, governments are struggling with the delicate balance between keeping people safe from a highly contagious virus and making sure they can still make a living or even have enough to eat.

Workers in some non-essential industries were returning to their jobs Monday in Spain, one of the hardest hit countries in the coronavirus pandemic, while in South Korea, officials were warning that hard-earned progress fighting the virus could be eroded by new infections as restrictions ease.

The decisions are complicated because each country is on its own coronavirus arc, with places such as Britain, Japan and parts of the United States still seeing increasing daily levels of deaths or infections; France and New York hoping they are stabilizing, albeit at a high plateau of deaths; and hard-hit countries such as Italy and Spain seeing declines in the rates of increase.

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Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said his government must balance its response to the virus crisis that “threatens to destroy lives and at the same time destroy the economic and social fabric of our country.”

Seeking to restart manufacturing, Spain’s government is allowing workers to return to some factory and construction jobs. Retail stores and services remain closed and office workers are strongly encouraged to keep working from home. A prohibition on people leaving home for anything other than groceries and medicine will remain for at least two weeks under the state of emergency.

"[Spain’s] economy is more vulnerable to the crisis since it relies on services like tourism that are severely harmed by the pandemic. That means it will likely have a deeper recession,” European Central Bank Vice-President Luis de Guindos told Spain’s La Vanguardia newspaper.

Yet some health experts and politicians argue it’s premature to ease the lockdown in a country that has suffered 17,489 deaths and reported 169,496 infections, second only to the United States’ 557,000 infections. But Spain on Monday reported its lowest daily growth in infections in three weeks.

Italy recorded its lowest daily virus death toll in three weeks at 431, putting its total deaths at more than 19,800.

In Madrid, Jose Pardinas took a mask being handed out by police as he walked to work at a moving company that was restarting operations after a three-week halt.

“The company hasn’t given us any protective equipment. I’m quite nervous about contracting the virus because my family can’t afford more time without an income,” Mr. Pardinas said.

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Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, meanwhile, issued a global plea to the world’s richer countries and international financial institutions to provide debt relief for poor countries, where forced lockdowns are crippling already troubled economies and causing widespread hunger for the poor.

His government has launched an ambitious US$8-billion program to help the millions near the poverty level. Mr. Khan last week relaxed his country’s lockdown to allow the construction industry, which employs the vast majority of Pakistan’s daily wage earners, to reopen.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has urged a cautious approach to any loosening of restrictions, will hold a video conference with regional governors Wednesday, after the governor of the state with the most infections called for a “road map” to return to normality.

Armin Laschet, governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, said “the willingness for restrictions also needs the prospect of normalization.” His government came up with a plan for gradually easing the restrictions imposed on March 22, when public gatherings were limited to only two people.

In South Korea, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said officials were discussing new public guidelines that would allow for “certain levels of economic and social activity” while also maintaining distance to slow the virus’s spread.

South Korea’s caseload has slowed from early March, when it was reporting about 500 new daily cases, but officials have warned of a broader “quiet spread” at locations such as bars, which are still open. President Moon Jae-in vowed Monday to focus on saving jobs and protecting the economy amid a sharp increase in the number of people seeking unemployment benefits.

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South Korea’s Vice-Health Minister, Kim Gang-lip, said a quick return to normality was “virtually impossible” considering the threat of new infections.

“A premature easing [of physical distancing] would come at an irrevocable cost, so we should approach the issue very carefully, and invest deep thought into when and how to transition,” Mr. Kim said.

In Sri Lanka, the government announced plans to reopen schools and universities in May.

The pandemic’s new epicentre is now the United States, which has seen more than 22,000 deaths, the world’s highest. About half have been in the New York metropolitan area, but hospitalizations are slowing in the state and other indicators suggest lockdowns and physical distancing are working.

U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said parts of the country could gradually reopen as early as next month.

In Britain, the death toll passed 10,600. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the first major world leader to test positive for the virus, paid an emotional tribute to the country’s National Health Service after leaving the hospital on Sunday. Mr. Johnson, who spent three nights in intensive care, especially thanked two nurses who stayed by his bedside for 48 hours “when things could have gone either way.”

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Japan, the world’s third-biggest economy, has seen new infections climb rapidly and now has 7,255 confirmed cases. Japanese companies have been slow to switch to working remotely and many people are still commuting, even after a state of emergency was declared for seven prefectures, including Tokyo.

To encourage people to stay home, the Japanese government released a video showing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe cuddling his dog, reading a book and clicking a remote control at home, but the message drew scathing criticism on social media.

Infections also spiked in Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most populous country, where President Joko Widodo pledged to be more transparent about the coronavirus. Last month, Mr. Widodo admitted he deliberately held back information about the virus’s spread to prevent panic. On Monday, he asked his ministers and the COVID-19 task force to be transparent with the public.

Indonesia has 4,557 confirmed infections and 399 deaths, Asia’s highest recorded number of fatalities after China.

More than 1.8 million coronavirus infections have been reported and more than 114,000 people have died worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University. The figures understate the true size and toll of the pandemic, because of limited testing, uneven counting of the dead and deliberate undercounting by some governments.

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