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GENEVA — Top US allies on Wednesday denounced the planned pullout of the United States from the World Health Organization, with the Italian health minister calling it “wrong” and a political ally of Germany’s chancellor warning that the withdrawal could make more room on the world stage for China.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, ratcheted up the Trump administration’s months of criticism of the United Nations health agency. The United States, which is facing criticism for its own handling of the coronavirus, leads the world in confirmed cases and deaths, a situation that President Trump has sought to blame on China.

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The new broadsides appeared aimed at refocusing attention during a presidential election year on the shortcomings of WHO and China early in the pandemic that has since reached nearly 11.9 million confirmed cases and a death toll approaching 545,800.

Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza called Trump’s pullout decision “serious and wrong.”

“The health crisis has shown that we need a reformed and stronger WHO, not a weaker one,” he said.

Italy was the onetime epicenter of the pandemic in the West and relied heavily on WHO’s guidance as it struggled to contain the virus and treat COVID-19 patients.

His German counterpart, Jens Spahn, decried a “setback for international cooperation,” writing on Twitter that more global cooperation, not less, is needed to fight pandemics.

Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha González Laya said that the WHO needs “more autonomy” and that the world needs more cooperation to prepare for future pandemics.

China also criticized the US withdrawal. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian defended the WHO on Wednesday and said the Trump administration’s move was “another demonstration of the US pursuing unilateralism, withdrawing from groups and breaking contracts.”

Associated Press

Africa’s confirmed cases surge above a half-million

JOHANNESBURG — Africa now has more than a half-million confirmed coronavirus cases, while South Africa’s health minister declared Wednesday that “we have now reached the surge.”

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The continentwide total is more than 508,000, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after South Africa recorded another day of more than 10,000 confirmed cases as a new global hot spot. The country makes up 43 percent of Africa’s cases.

The true number of cases among Africa’s 1.3 billion people is unknown as its 54 countries face a serious shortage of testing materials for the virus.

So far most testing has been concentrated in capital cities, but infections in many cases have spread beyond them.

Already COVID-19 has killed more people in Africa — 11,955 — than Ebola did in its deadliest outbreak from 2014 to 2016 in West Africa, the WHO said Wednesday.

Associated Press

Serbian leader backtracks on lockdown amid protests

BELGRADE, Serbia — Police fired tear gas at protesters in Serbia’s capital on Wednesday during the second day of demonstrations against the president’s handling of the country’s coronavirus outbreak.

President Aleksandar Vucic backtracked on his plans to reinstate a coronavirus lockdown in Belgrade this week, but it didn’t stop people from firing flares and throwing stones while trying to storm the downtown parliament building.

Several people were injured during the chaotic clashes in front of the parliament on Wednesday, including some of the opposition leaders.

Police on horses and in armored vehicles intervened in the city center to push back the demonstrators, setting up cordons and blocking the crowd from returning to the square outside the parliament building.

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Loads of tear gas were fired in several spots. Some protesters overturned garbage containers and set them on fire while trying to stop the police officers pushing them away.

The scene was reminiscent of the era of late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, when clashes often erupted at antigovernment protests.

Associated Press

Brazil’s president, infected with virus, touts drug

RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who said he is infected with the coronavirus, on Wednesday defended his government’s handling of the pandemic that has killed tens of thousands of Brazilians and touted his use of a contentious antimalaria drug.

Bolsonaro posted a photo of himself eating breakfast on Facebook, and a message that said his government provided payouts to informal sector laborers, thereby saving jobs and lives without spreading panic about the pandemic.

The nation’s confirmed death toll from COVID-19 is the second-highest in the world after the United States.

“No country in the world did it like Brazil,” Bolsonaro said. ‘‘For those who root against hydroxychloroquine, but don’t present alternatives, I regret to inform you that I’m very well with its use and, with God’s grace, I will live for a long time still.”

Bolsonaro said Tuesday that he tested positive for the virus, after months of downplaying its severity while deaths mounted rapidly inside the country. He repeatedly touted chloroquine, a more toxic version of the anti-malarial drug.

Associated Press

Germany’s Merkel: Pandemic highlights limits of populism

BRUSSELS — The coronavirus pandemic is showing the limits of “fact-denying populism,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Wednesday, as she urged European Union countries to quickly agree on a major economic recovery package and deprive nationalists of any opportunity to take advantage of the crisis.

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The virus has killed more than 100,000 people in the 27 EU nations. It sparked what is likely to be the worst economic crisis in Europe in almost a century, according to the European Commission, after the disease ravaged health care systems and forced the closure of businesses, transport systems, and schools.

Merkel’s remarks to the European Parliament came as the leaders of Italy and Spain — the first EU countries to impose far-reaching lockdowns and two of the worst-hit countries in the world — urged fellow EU members to agree at a summit next week on “ambitious terms” for the recovery fund to help get economies back on track.

Germany took over the task of chairing EU meetings on July 1 and faces the daunting challenge of seeking a compromise on the coronavirus recovery fund worth as much as 750 billion euros ($850 billion).

Associated Press

Wedding season brings new virus outbreak in West Bank

RAMALLAH, West Bank — By the end of May, the Palestinian Authority appeared to have quashed a coronavirus outbreak in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, with only around 400 confirmed cases and just two fatalities in the territory, following a nearly three-month lockdown.

Then the wedding invitations went out.

Over the last few weeks, infections have skyrocketed across the West Bank, with more than 4,000 new cases and an additional 15 deaths.

Authorities blame the surge on widespread neglect of social distancing and mask-wearing — and on the summer wedding season.

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Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh told a Cabinet meeting on Monday that 82 percent of cases in the West Bank were linked to weddings and funerals, saying that such large public gatherings must stop “immediately” or security forces would start breaking them up.

The Palestinian Authority imposed a strict five-day lockdown on Friday, forcing nearly all businesses to close and heavily restricting travel between towns and cities.

The stay-at-home orders were renewed for another five days on Tuesday.

The epicenter of the renewed outbreak is in Hebron, the largest Palestinian city and a commercial hub of the territory.

It accounts for around 75 percent of all active cases and more than two-thirds of all deaths, according to Ali Abed Rabu, a Palestinian Health Ministry official.

Associated Press