US in mourning over 500,000 Covid deaths, UK sees hope

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WASHINGTON, Feb 23, 2021 (BSS/AFP) – President Joe Biden ordered flags
lowered to half mast Monday after the United States crossed the
“heartbreaking” milestone of 500,000 Covid-19 deaths, while Britain eyed
lifting lockdowns in the latest sign of global gains against the pandemic.

“I know what it’s like,” an emotional Biden said in a national television
address, referring to his own long history of family tragedies.

“I ask all Americans to remember, remember those we lost and those they
left behind,” Biden said. “I also ask us to act, to remain vigilant, to say
socially distant, to mask up, to get vaccinated.”

Biden, accompanied by his wife Jill and Vice President Kamala Harris and
her husband Doug Emhoff, then stood outside the White House to mark a
moment’s silence in front of 500 candles representing the toll — the highest
reported of any country.

Earlier, flags were lowered over the White House and at federal buildings
nationwide as well as at embassies around the world.

“As a nation we cannot and must not let this go on,” Biden said, urging
unity. “We have to fight this together as one people, as the United States of
America.

– Signs of progress –

Unlike his predecessor Donald Trump, who often sought to minimize the
disease, Biden has made the pandemic his top priority, simultaneously pushing
an aggressive vaccine rollout and making frequent, public shows of empathy.

It is a strategy that could make or break the Biden presidency, already
juggling high-stakes economic challenges and the tense political aftermath of
the Trump era.

Biden has warned that the US toll could still go “well over” 600,000.

But signs are also emerging that progress is being made both in the United
States and around the world, with infections dropping sharply and vaccine
deliveries rising steadily.

In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined a “gradual and cautious”
approach to lifting curbs in England that could see life there return almost
to normal by the end of June. The first step will be the return of children
to schools from March 8.

There was also good news from a University of Edinburgh study finding that
Pfizer and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccinations have led to a “substantial
reduction” in Covid-19 admissions to hospitals in Scotland.

Despite the dramatic losses in the United States, the trend there is also
sharply downward.

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control, said US
deaths are at their lowest since December, with a 39 percent drop in the
latest seven-day average of new daily cases.

Globally, the toll is nearing 2.5 million.

– India struggles –

Meanwhile India, the world’s second worst-hit nation in terms of
infections, passed a bleak threshold on Monday by registering its 11
millionth case following a renewed rise in transmission.

Fresh restrictions on gatherings came into force in the western state of
Maharashtra, home to financial capital Mumbai, which has logged almost 52,000
deaths since the start of the pandemic.

The vast nation’s inoculation drive is creeping slowly, and India’s Serum
Institute — the world’s biggest vaccine maker — has urged other countries
to be “patient,” saying it has been told to prioritize the home market.

In the capital New Delhi, vegetable vendor Radhekrishna Negi spoke for many
around the world, telling AFP: “I am fed up of corona.”

– Australia delivers first shots –

According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 61 million people
have received at least one shot of vaccine in the United States, with some 18
million getting the full two doses.

In Australia, top officials Sunday were among a small group receiving the
first doses, a day before the program starts in earnest.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison got the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine at a medical
center in Sydney, in what the government said was a bid to boost public
confidence after some anti-vaccine protests.

And in Gaza on Sunday, some 20,000 Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine doses
arrived from the United Arab Emirates.

The shots came via the Rafah crossing with Egypt, meaning they did not pass
through Israel, which has maintained a tight blockade on Gaza since 2007.

Britain’s government has vowed to offer a first dose to every adult by the
end of July. More than 17 million people have now received at least a first
vaccine dose — one third of the adult UK population.

Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of German pupils returned to schools and
kindergartens for the first time in two months on Monday.

In Hong Kong, leader Carrie Lam received a shot of the Chinese Sinovac drug
after the financial hub last week fast-tracked its approval.

And Air New Zealand said it will trial a digital travel pass to give
airlines and border authorities access to passenger health information,
including their Covid-19 vaccination status.

But the World Health Organization criticized wealthy countries for hogging
Covid vaccines, preventing availability for poorer nations.

Countries like the United States have contributed money for procurement to
supply poor countries, but the WHO said funds are useless if no vaccines are
available.

“Even if you have the money, if you cannot use the money to buy vaccines,
having the money doesn’t mean anything,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom
Ghebreyesus said.