Pandemic hits 'critical point' as Europe deaths top one million
Customers enjoy a taste of freedom the Soho area of London Tolga Akmen AFP

Europe passed the grim milestone of one million coronavirus deaths on Monday, as the World Health Organization warned that infections are rising exponentially despite widespread efforts aimed at stopping them.

The death toll across Europe's 52 countries, compiled by AFP from official sources, totalled at least 1,000,288 by 1830 GMT.

"We are in a critical point of the pandemic right now," said Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's technical lead on Covid-19.

"The trajectory of this pandemic is growing... exponentially.

"This is not the situation we want to be in 16 months into a pandemic, when we have proven control measures," she told reporters.

The coronavirus has already killed more than 2.9 million people and infected nearly 136 million across the world.

But despite the sombre news in Europe -- the world's worst-hit region -- Britain eased curbs for the first time in months on Monday, allowing Britons to enjoy a taste of freedom with a pint and a haircut.

The changes illustrate how fast-vaccinating countries are leaving other -- mostly poorer -- nations behind.

In South Africa, the president called for African-made vaccines as the continent lags behind other regions in its innoculation efforts, struggling with inadequate supplies as well as a lack of financing and logistical problems.

"Africa needs to harness its own continental capabilities and identify opportunities for collaboration," Cyril Ramaphosa said.

Ramaphosa suggested India or Brazil could help after successfully developing their own generic pharmaceutical industries.

But both giants are battling their own health crises, with India overtaking Brazil on Monday as the country with the second-highest number of infections after logging more than 168,000 new cases in a day.

- South Asia tightens curbs -

"The solution is for everyone to stay home for two months and end this (pandemic) once and for all. But the public doesn't listen," said Rohit, a 28-year-old waiter in Mumbai.

Experts have warned that huge, mostly maskless and tightly packed crowds at political rallies, religious festivals and in other public places have fuelled India's caseload.

In the Himalayan city Haridwar on Monday, maskless Hindu pilgrims squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder on the banks of the Ganges River for a dip during the Kumbh Mela ritual.

Several Indian regions have tightened their coronavirus measures with Maharashtra, India's wealthiest state and current epicentre of its epidemic, imposing a weekend lockdown and night curfew.

Neighbouring Bangladesh has announced it will virtually seal itself off, shutting down both international and domestic transport starting Wednesday in an attempt to staunch its own spiralling outbreak.

The South Asian nation of 160 million people will also shutter all offices for eight days.

Russia, meanwhile, said it would suspend air links with Turkey and Tanzania for six weeks as they battle a surge in Covid-19 cases.

- Glimmers of hope –

But there are glimmers of hope in the drawn-out fight against the pandemic.

English pubs and restaurants can now serve people outside, a move welcomed by the hard-hit hospitality sector despite wintry temperatures.

"It'll be great to see everybody again and see all the locals," Louise Porter, landlady of The Crown Inn in Askrigg, northern England, told AFP.

"Our lives have just been turned upside down, just like everybody else's," she said, adding: "We're still here to tell the tale."

England's hairdressers, indoor gyms and swimming pools also got the green light to reopen.

Retail parks and high streets anticipate a shopping spree, hoping the partial reprieve after more than three months of stay-at-home orders will trigger an economic windfall.

Once the worst affected country in Europe, Britain launched a successful vaccination campaign coupled with lockdown measures that cut deaths by 95 percent and cases by 90 percent from January.

In France, now the European country with the most infections, an expansion of the vaccine rollout has buoyed optimism among lockdown-weary residents. Everyone over 55 years old is now eligible for Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca jabs.

In Greece, high school students were welcomed back to campus for the first time in five months on Monday.

And in other positive news, clinical trial results indicated that the Regeneron antibody treatment used to treat Covid-19 patients also helps prevent infections.

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© 2021 AFP