World races to contain Indian variant surge
NEW YORK: People walk through the Oculus Mall in Manhattan in New York City. Numerous stores in the mall have required guests to start wearing masks again as the Delta variant of Covid spreads through the city.–AFP
Governments around the world on Thursday raced to head off a surge in coronavirus cases driven by the Delta variant, with US President Joe Biden offering new incentives to vaccine holdouts and Israel authorizing booster shots.
The World Health Organization warned the highly transmissible strain of the virus, first detected in India, could unleash a "fourth wave" of cases in its Eastern Mediterranean zone -- an area stretching from Morocco to Pakistan.
Those countries are especially at risk because vaccination rates are low -- only 5.5 percent of the region's population has been fully vaccinated. So in nations where vaccines are more available, public officials are sounding the alarm.
"People are dying -- and will die -- who don't have to die," Biden said in a speech on his administration's new initiatives aimed at curbing the spread. "If you're out there and unvaccinated, you don't have to die."
He said all federal government workers would be asked to reveal their vaccination status -- and those without the jab would have to mask in the workplace and submit to Covid-19 tests.
The Democratic president also said he would ask the Pentagon to consider making the coronavirus vaccine mandatory for active duty military personnel, and asked state and local governments to offer $100 to holdouts who get the shot.
"If incentives help us beat this virus, I believe we should use them. We all benefit if we can get more people vaccinated," Biden said.
In Israel, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced that those over the age of 60 would be offered a third dose of vaccine -- a booster shot available from Sunday.
"I call on all elderly people who have already been vaccinated to receive this additional dose," Bennett said. "Protect yourselves."
"The decision was based on considerable research and analysis, as well as the rise in risk of the Delta variant wave," Bennett said.
Israel quickly rolled out its vaccination campaign and had dropped many restrictions on public gatherings in June, but infections soared, and masks are once again mandatory in enclosed public places.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has also urged people living in Covid hotspots -- even the vaccinated -- to mask up indoors.
The surge in cases across America has left the early vaccine adopters angry at those who have so far opted against the jab.
"It's almost like they don't care about the rest of the world. They're being selfish and self-centered," Alethea Reed, a 58-year-old health care administrator in Washington, told AFP.
- Mixed bag of measures -
The global coronavirus situation is a mixed one: while some places like the French territory of La Reunion and Spain's Catalonia region are instituting new curbs, others are easing up on restrictions.
Portugal said it would lift its anti-virus measures in several phases from Sunday, with shops and restaurants allowed to open for longer hours and working from home no longer compulsory.
But at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, already delayed by a year due to the pandemic, the virus continued to wreak havoc, with nearly 200 infections among the athletes, media and employees taking part in the Games.
Japan hit a new record for the number of daily cases -- more than 10,000 -- on Thursday, and a state of emergency already in place in Tokyo was to be extended to four more regions.
"The current situation is the worst ever," a top government advisor on the virus, Shigeru Omi, warned, according to national broadcaster NHK.
In Mexico, the national statistics institute said more than 200,000 deaths from the coronavirus were recorded in 2020 -- 35 percent more than originally reported by the government
And in China, where the novel coronavirus first emerged in the city of Wuhan, small outbreaks driven by the Delta variant were reported in three provinces.
China is racing to vaccinate at least 65 percent of its 1.4-billion population by the end of the year.
So far, the virus has killed more than 4.1 million people around the world, according to an AFP tally compiled from official sources. The United States has the highest death toll, at more than 612,000.