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Global death toll nears two million as WHO battles new virus strains

January 16, 2021

PARIS: The worldwide death toll from coronavirus approached two million on Friday, with Europe topping 30 million infections and World Health Organisation experts working on advice to fight new, more contagious strains of the disease.

The soaring number of fatalities -- 1,994,833 -- is matched by the spread of infections with Europe recording 30,003,905 cases, nearly a third of the worldwide total, according to an AFP tally based on official statistics.

Adding to the run of terrible milestones, Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, hit two million infections. Many countries are doubling down on virus restrictions, with vaccination drives still in their infancy.

Portugal entered a fresh lockdown on Friday while Britain began requiring negative tests for entry, and fresh curbs on populations were announced from Brazil to Lebanon.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is pushing for a "significant" tightening of curbs to slow the infection rate as the European Union’s most populous country added more than 22,000 new cases.

She said she wanted to bring forward crisis talks with regional leaders, participants at a meeting of her centre-right CDU party told AFP. The virus could only be stopped with "significant additional measures" and people urgently needed to reduce social contact, Merkel reportedly said. At the Meissen crematorium in Germany’s Saxony state, coffins were stacked up to three high, or even stored in hallways, awaiting cremation.

Manager Joerg Schaldach, 57, said anyone still denying the severity of the pandemic should take a look at the bodies piling up. "This is heavy work, so why don’t the Covid-19 deniers come and do it," he said. "We have a disastrous situation here."

Germany has fared better than many of its European neighbours in the pandemic, with France, Italy, Spain and Britain all recording more infections despite smaller populations. Britain on Thursday said it would ban all arrivals from South American countries from Friday, over fears of importing a new coronavirus strain.

"I’ve taken the urgent decision... following evidence of a new variant in Brazil," said Transport Secretary Grant Shapps. The new strain, known as E484K, has raised alarm among researchers over its possible impact on immunity.

Partly over fears of new variants, France said it would impose a daily nationwide curfew at six pm starting on Saturday and remaining in force for at least two weeks. Most of France had already been under an eight pm curfew, with some areas, especially in the hard-hit east, already under the six pm limit.

Brazil’s northern Amazonas state also announced a curfew from seven pm to six am as the health system is pushed to breaking point in the state capital Manaus. Global health experts were expected on Friday to issue recommendations to stem the spread of this variant and other new strains, which the WHO called "worrying".

"When you first met almost a year ago, just 557 cases of the disease we now call Covid-19 had been reported to the WHO," director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told Thursday’s emergency meeting in Geneva, which had been brought forward two weeks.

Scientists see large-scale vaccination as the way out of the crisis but 95 percent of doses so far administered have been limited to just 10 countries, according to the WHO. Progress on administering vaccines has often been slow.

India’s mammoth immunisation programme will begin on Saturday. In the United States around 10 million people have received a first shot. In Africa, Senegal said it would launch vaccinations by the end of March and Nigeria announced it would have 10 million vaccine doses by the end of the same month.

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation with 200 million people, has officially reported 104,000 Covid-19 cases, of which 1,382 have been fatal. But the figures are believed to fall short of the real toll.

US policymakers are focused on addressing the economic damage from the pandemic, with President-elect Joe Biden unveiling a proposal for a $1.9 trillion relief package aimed at revitalising the world’s largest economy.

He aims to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, help struggling state and local governments, safely reopen schools, boost the vaccination campaign and raise the size of stimulus cheques.

"In this moment of crisis... we cannot afford inaction," Biden said. Meanwhile, Chancellor Angela Merkel will host fresh crisis talks next week on tougher measures to slow Germany’s infection rate, her spokesman said Friday, as the country crossed two million coronavirus cases.

Merkel will discuss restrictions with leaders of Germany’s 16 states on Tuesday, bringing forward a meeting initially scheduled for January 25.

"The number of new infections remains far too high," spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters in Berlin, stressing the need for Germans to further reduce their social contacts.

He also said the government was taking "very seriously" concerns over a new virus strain that has emerged in Britain and is considered more contagious.

"All this is reason enough to further strengthen our efforts," he added. The comments came shortly after Germany, the European Union’s most populous country, added another 22,368 new cases over the past 24 hours, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 2,000,958.

The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) health agency also reported another 1,113 Covid-19 fatalities, taking the overall death toll up to 44,994. More than 1.6 million have recovered. At a meeting of senior members of her centre-right CDU party on Thursday, Merkel said the virus could only be stopped with "significant additional measures", participants told AFP.German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier meanwhile issued a joint appeal with union and employer federation representatives, urging firms to have staff work from home "whenever possible".

More could be done to keep non-essential workers out of the office and off public transport, they said. "All those who can work from home should do so now, at the latest," Steinmeier said.

Germany fared better than many of its neighbours in the early days of the pandemic, but has been hit hard by a second wave despite being in some form of shutdown since early November.