24 Nov 2021, 10:14

Europe battles Covid surge as WHO warns of 700,000 more deaths

  COPENHAGEN, Nov 24, 2021 (BSS/AFP) - Europe remains "in the firm grip" of
Covid and the continent's death toll could top 2.2 million this winter if
current trends continue, the World Health Organization warned on Tuesday.

  Europe is battling an upsurge in the pandemic that saw Austria return to
lockdown this week while Germany and the Netherlands are poised to announce
new restrictions.

  A further 700,000 people in the 53 countries that comprise the WHO's
European region could die by March 1, the global health agency said, in
addition to the 1.5 million who have already succumbed to the virus.

  It expects "high or extreme stress in intensive care units (ICUs) in 49 out
of 53 countries between now and March 1, 2022".

  Europe's return to the pandemic's epicentre has been blamed on sluggish
vaccine uptake in some nations, the highly contagious Delta variant, colder
weather moving people indoors again and the easing of restrictions.

  In the European Union, 67.7 percent of the population is fully vaccinated.

  But rates vary widely between countries, with low levels in many eastern
countries. Only 24.2 percent of Bulgarians are fully vaccinated, compared
with 86.7 percent in Portugal.

  According to WHO data, Covid-related deaths in Europe increased last week
to almost 4,200 a day, doubling from 2,100 a day at the end of September.

  It said evidence was growing that vaccine-induced protection against
infection and mild disease was declining.

  - Booster shots -

  Several countries, including Greece, France and Germany, are moving towards
requiring a third booster shot for someone to be considered fully vaccinated.

  Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned that Germany is not doing enough to
curb its "highly dramatic" fourth wave of the pandemic.

  With intensive care beds swiftly filling up and its weekly incidence rate
at an all-time high of 399.8 new infections per 100,000 people, Germany's
worst-hit regions have ordered new shutdowns.

  The German military is expected to add coronavirus jabs to the list of
mandatory vaccines for soldiers "soon", a defence ministry spokesman said.

  The move would make troops the first German public servants to be obliged
to be jabbed against the virus.

  It comes as the army is preparing to deploy soldiers to help local
authorities with vaccinations, tests and other efforts to counter soaring
infection rates expected in the weeks ahead.

  The US State Department has urged Americans not to travel to Germany or
neighbouring Denmark because of the surging Covid case numbers.

  The rise in cases and hospitalisations have ignited a fierce debate in
Germany about whether to follow Austria's example and make vaccination
mandatory for all citizens.

  Austria meanwhile closed shops, restaurants and festive markets on Monday,
the most drastic restrictions seen in Western Europe for months.

  - 'Challenging winter ahead'-

  Israel, which is part of the WHO's European region, on Tuesday rolled out
vaccinations for children aged five to 11, one of only a handful of countries
to inoculate minors that young.

  About half of its recently confirmed cases were among those below the age
of 11, it said.

  And France's fully vaccinated Prime Minister Jean Castex went into
isolation late on Monday following a positive test, after his daughter caught
the virus.

  The regional director for WHO Europe, Hans Kluge, said Europe and Central
Asia "face a challenging winter ahead".

  He called for a "vaccine plus" approach, consisting of a combination of
vaccinations, social distancing, the use of face masks and hand washing.

  The WHO said face masks reduce Covid incidence by 53 percent according to a
recent study, and "over 160,000 deaths could be prevented (by March 1) if
universal mask coverage of 95 percent was achieved".

  But the prospect of a winter under renewed restrictions has sparked unrest
in several countries.

  Belgium, the Netherlands and France's Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and
Martinique were on Tuesday still reeling from violent protests against new
anti-Covid measures.

  Dutch police arrested at least 21 people during a fourth night of clashes,
which Prime Minister Mark Rutte labelled "pure violence" by "idiots".

  His Belgian counterpart Alexander De Croo called violence at a 35,000-
strong protest in Brussels "absolutely unacceptable".

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