France ditches masks but virus cases surge in Africa
PARIS- Agence France-Presse
Highly contagious coronavirus variants are fuelling a surge in infections in Africa, the World Health Organization warned on June 17, while in Europe more governments eased their pandemic restrictions.
France savored a fresh sense of freedom as people were allowed to remove face masks while outside for the first time since last autumn, and Disneyland Paris welcomed visitors after an eight-month hiatus.
Austria meanwhile announced that partygoers will be allowed to hit the dancefloor again in July as nightclubs reopen, in line with a broader easing of measures.
Africa has so far been hit less hard by the pandemic than most other regions, with 135,885 deaths from 5,107,939 cases so far, according to official figures.
But the WHO left little doubt that things are changing.
"Africa is in the midst of a full-blown third wave. The sobering trajectory of surging cases should rouse everyone into urgent action," Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa, told an online news conference.
The U.N. health agency said a lack of adherence to social distancing and other measures had fuelled the new surge, along with cold winter weather in southern Africa and the spread of more transmissible variants.
In 22 African countries, cases rose by more than 20 percent in the week to June 13, with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Namibia and Uganda reporting their highest levels of new weekly cases since the pandemic began, according to WHO data.
Moeti called the situation "an urgent wake-up call" for faster vaccination rollouts in Africa against Covid-19. Less than one percent of the continent’s population has been fully vaccinated so far.
Elsewhere, though, inoculation campaigns are allowing governments to ease up on virus restrictions.
Japan’s government on Thursday approved the lifting of Tokyo’s state of emergency just over a month before it host the Olympics, but set new restrictions that could sharply limit fans at Games events.
The state of emergency in Tokyo began in late April, limiting bar and restaurant opening hours and banning them from selling alcohol.
That measure will now end in the capital and eight other regions on June 20, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced.
"The number of infections nationwide has been declining since mid-May and the situation in terms of hospital beds is steadily improving," he said.
In France, the easing of coronavirus rules came as authorities hailed a rapid decline in new cases on the eve of summer holidays, raising hopes for a more vibrant and relaxed tourist season.
The nationwide curfew of 11.00 pm is to be lifted ahead of schedule on Sunday, as France’s vaccination drive begins to pay off after an initially slow start.
Health Minister Olivier Veran said 60 percent of adults have now received at least one Covid jab, and youths aged 12 and over are now eligible as well.
In fellow EU member Austria, "the situation is much better than expected," Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told reporters, although he cautioned that people should not become "overconfident" until they are immunized.
Crowd numbers will no longer be restricted at events, where people do not need to keep their distance or wear face coverings anymore.
A midnight curfew will also be lifted from July 1, allowing for nightlife to return.
The European Medicines Agency stressed that there is still a pandemic and urged EU states to use "all the vaccine options available to fight the coronavirus pandemic".
The comments come as several countries have limited the use of so-called viral vector jabs like AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson due to a link with rare blood clots, opting instead for Messenger RNA vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna.
Parts of Europe are still seeing rising cases.
Portugal’s government on Thursday said it was banning weekend travel in and out of the Lisbon region due to worryingly high infection rates.
Britain’s numbers are increasing again as well. The country recorded 11,007 new cases Thursday as the aggressive Delta variant pushed the figure the figure above 10,000 for the first time since February.
The U.K. government announced this week that it is delaying further relaxations on restrictions due to concerns over the strain, first detected in India.
Britain’s death rate remains relatively low after a rapid vaccine rollout, with 19 fatalities recorded Thursday.
The Russian capital Moscow is also seeing a sudden jump on Covid-19 cases.
"It’s most likely we are facing new, more aggressive variants which spread more quickly," the city’s mayor Sergei Sobyanin told a video conference.
He noted that daily infections in Moscow had soared from 3,000 to 7,000 within a few days and were expected to hit more than 9,000 on Friday.
"It’s tripling," he warned. "There’s an enormous dynamic that we have not seen during the previous waves."