6 June 2024

Geneva, Switzerland (AFP) – More than four million people have now died of Covid-19 infections, the WHO said on Wednesday, as many richer nations prepared to loosen restrictions even as countries in Asia battle surging infections.

Indonesia has become a global hotspot, with hospitals having to turn away patients, authorities forced to import oxygen supplies and a record 1,040 deaths reported on Wednesday.

“The world is at a perilous point in this pandemic,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, calling the four-million figure an underestimate of the true toll.

He said some countries with high vaccination coverage were “relaxing as though the pandemic is already over”, while others have seen sharp spikes in cases because of highly-transmissible variants and a “shocking inequity” in access to vaccines.

Indonesia is one country being hit hard.

The government has expanded restrictions across the archipelago following earlier clampdowns on the capital Jakarta and some other areas.

“We need to pay attention to the availability of hospitals,” said senior minister Airlangga Hartarto.

The new restrictions apply to dozens of cities and extend across the vast nation of nearly 270 million people, which has been hammered by the highly infectious Delta variant that was first detected in India.

Delta-fuelled outbreaks have also led to the imposition of restrictions in Australia, including in its biggest city Sydney where lockdown orders on more than five million residents were on Wednesday extended by at least another week.

“This Delta strain is a game changer, it’s extremely transmissible,” said Gladys Berejiklian, premier of New South Wales state, of which Sydney is the capital.

Australia has largely kept its outbreaks in check since the pandemic began, but the government is under increasing pressure over the slow rollout of vaccines.

“It’s still scary that the virus is out there,” said Menno De Moel, 44, at a vaccination centre in Sydney where he was getting his first shot.

“Hopefully this is going to be the last lockdown, but on the other hand anything that is needed, needs to be done.”

– Olympic impact –

The Tokyo Olympics, already delayed by a year, also remain plagued by coronavirus fears, with authorities and organisers trying to find ways to safely host one of the biggest sporting events in the world just over two weeks before it begins.

Officials announced Wednesday that the Olympic torch relay had been scrapped on Tokyo’s roads to prevent crowds.

And with infections on the rise, the government is expected to extend restrictions this week that will likely affect the number of fans that can attend Olympic events.

But in London, the Euro 2020 football tournament’s semi-finals and final are set to be held this week with 60,000 fans permitted at Wembley Stadium, despite Britain facing a new surge in infections.

Mass vaccinations, however, have stopped a resultant surge in hospital admissions or deaths.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced the end of most virus restrictions, such as face masks and indoor social distancing, in England. Other UK nations — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — are moving more slowly.

– ‘Obnoxious’ anti-maskers –

As some countries peel back Covid restrictions, the WHO sounded alarm over a lack of funding to fight the pandemic.

It said Tuesday its global appeal for funding for coronavirus vaccines, treatments, diagnostics and equipment was still $16.8 billion short — almost half its total needs.

Even in wealthier nations with successful inoculation programmes, authorities are wary of a resurgence and have kept some restrictions in place, such as the requirement for face masks on flights in the United States.

But an American Airlines flight from North Carolina to the Bahamas was delayed by a day after around 30 teenagers refused to wear masks, US media said Tuesday.

“It was bad. First, they were yelling. They were cursing,” witness Malik Banks told local station WSOC-TV.

“They were being very obnoxious.”