US passes 400,000 virus deaths as Europe battles surge
WASHINGTON-Agence France Presse
President-elect Joe Biden led a moving tribute on Jan. 19 for U.S. coronavirus victims - now more than 400,000 - as European nations battled record daily fatalities and fear spread of new virus strains.
Almost a year after the United States registered its first COVID-19 death, the pace of the pandemic has picked up with 100,000 deaths in the past month alone, adding to a national toll far above any other country.
"It’s hard sometimes to remember, but that’s how we heal. It’s important to do that as a nation," Biden said in somber remarks in Washington at the National Mall reflecting pool, where lights were turned on as a memorial to those who have died.
"Let us shine the lights in the darkness along the sacred pool of reflection and remember all who we lost," said Biden.
The arrival of mass vaccination campaigns in the United States and Europe had brought hope that the end of the epidemic was in sight, and the European Union said on Jan. 19 it was aiming to inoculate 70 percent of its adult population before the end of August.
EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said meeting the target could be "a turning point" in the fight against the virus.
But many EU countries - and other nations including India and Russia - have struggled to get their inoculation programmes off the ground.
As nations grapple with the health crisis, several inquiries have re-energized questions over the origins of the virus in China in late 2019, and how the authorities handled it.
Beijing has been accused of stifling whistleblowers who tried to raise the alarm, and experts said this week that officials could have reacted quicker to avert catastrophe.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying dismissed the criticism, saying: "As the first country to sound the alarm against the pandemic, we took prompt and decisive measures even though we had incomplete information at the time."
Biden has made tackling the pandemic his top priority, as he prepares to take office on Wednesday.
He is already being forced to take action, with his aides contradicting an order from outgoing President Donald Trump to lift travel bans designed to stop the spread.
"With the pandemic worsening, and more contagious variants emerging around the world, this is not the time to be lifting restrictions on international travel," tweeted Jen Psaki, Biden’s press secretary.
Caution was in evidence too in Taiwan, which called off its largest Lunar New Year lantern festival for the first time as authorities rushed to stem a COVID cluster in one of the few places to survive the pandemic largely unscathed.
In Africa, Rwanda’s capital Kigali was back under total lockdown after a surge in cases.
Britain has been coping with a new strain of the virus thought to be far more infectious, and on Jan. 19 it registered a record 1,610 deaths over 24 hours.
There was, however, a sign of hope for Britain as the number of new cases over a week was down about 22 percent following a stringent lockdown announced this month.
More than four million people in Britain have been vaccinated so far.
As fears of new variants spread, Portugal also clocked a record daily number of fatalities and Germany tightened and extended its partial lockdown until mid-February.
Elsewhere in Europe, Serbia became the first European country to use the Chinese-made Sinopharm jab, while Austrian authorities were looking into reports of alleged queue-jumping for vaccines, including by several mayors.
In hard-hit South America, Argentina began administering second doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine as Chile started a campaign to immunize its general population.
Israel extended its lockdown to the end of the month after a spike in infections.
The pandemic continued to batter the world of sport, forcing postponements and the quarantining of players.
Health officials said two Australian Open tennis players have tested positive - a new blow for the tournament facing a backlash from a wary public.
The unnamed players were among three new cases, taking the tournament’s cluster to seven.
More than 1,000 players and staff are in quarantine after arriving last week in Australia, which is largely coronavirus-free.
Player complaints about quarantine have raised further hackles, and Australia’s Nick Kyrgios led criticism of world number one Novak Djokovic for requesting improved conditions.
"Djokovic is a tool," tweeted Kyrgios, the world number 47.
Van Morrison’s lawyer, meanwhile, announced the music legend would challenge the Northern Irish government in court over its "blanket ban" on live music in licensed venues arising from coronavirus restrictions.
In Sri Lanka, another example of the quack cures and false claims that have proliferated in connection with the virus was shown to be dangerously false.
A self-styled holy man’s supposed miracle potion to prevent COVID-19 turned sour after a minister who publicly drank it was hospitalized with the virus.
Thousands defied public gathering restrictions to swamp a village in central Sri Lanka last month to get the syrup made by Dhammika Bandara.