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India faces record virus surge as Saudi restricts pilgrimages

New Delhi – India ramped up its fight against coronavirus yesterday to try to dampen record-breaking daily infection rates, as Saudi Arabia said it would allow only “immunised” pilgrims into its holiest sites.

The pandemic has not abated despite more than 660 million jabs having been doled out across the world, with vaccine-manufacturing powerhouse India registering more than 100,000 cases in a single day for the first time and infections in Iran hitting a four-month high.

The latest outbreak in India is focused on Maharashtra state, home to financial hub Mumbai, which tightened its overnight curfew and closed restaurants and places of worship on weekends in response.

“The fear of Covid-19 has gone away. Most people don’t wear masks properly, including many of my passengers,” Surjit Singh, an auto-rickshaw driver in the capital New Delhi, told AFP.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is trying to resist growing pressure to impose a new national lockdown, after a shutdown in March last year caused widespread misery.

Britain is among the pace-setters for inoculations with almost half its population having received at least one jab, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson was able to announce yesterday a rollback of lockdown measures for England.

However, he refused to be drawn on a much-anticipated plan to lift curbs on overseas travel, saying only that he hoped summer holidays abroad would be possible without committing to a timetable.

In sharp contrast, many other countries in Europe are lagging behind Britain for vaccinations and have been forced to reimpose deeply unpopular shutdowns to battle stubbornly high caseloads.

‘Driving me crazy’

A pandemic that has already claimed more than 2.8 million lives is continuing to put huge pressure on health systems across the world, with Iran recording almost 14,000 cases yesterday — its highest daily total for four months.

Iran has never imposed a national lockdown despite being one of the Middle East’s worst-hit countries.

Across the Gulf in Saudi Arabia, officials conceded that Muslim pilgrimages could not yet get back to normal, announcing that only vaccinated travellers or those recently recovered from the virus would be allowed to take part in the year-round umrah pilgrimage.

The measures will be enforced from the start of Ramadan in mid-April, but it was unclear if they would affect the hajj pilgrimage later in the year, which traditionally attracts millions from around the world.

Restrictions came into force in Bangladesh yesterday, with the start of a seven-day lockdown to fight a sharp rise in cases and all domestic travel including flights suspended. Malls and shops were also closed.

Thousands fled the capital Dhaka on Sunday, while many were seen buying groceries in bulk ahead of the lockdown.

“We won’t be able to support the family if this lockdown prolongs,” said street vendor Murad Hasan.

“It is driving me crazy. What should we do?”

One Norwegian man felt the same and tried to skirt around his country’s quarantine rules by skiing across the border with Sweden — but it did not end well and the man needed to be rescued.

“He was soaked through and he was cold,” as well as being annoyed and unapologetic, rescue worker Trond Helge Ronning told AFP.

‘100 per cent necessary’

The persistent threat of the coronavirus despite vaccinations is well illustrated in Europe — many countries still struggling despite their wealth and comparatively high availability of jabs.

France and Italy imposed curbs before the Easter weekend, though Italian officials later relaxed the rules for some foreign travellers — shortening quarantine periods for those coming from Britain, Australia and Israel.

In Ukraine’s capital Kiev, primary schools were closed as Mayor Vitali Klitschko warned that the health system was “very close” to collapse.

However, officials in Greece and Portugal felt confident enough to ease some of the harshest restrictions on Monday, allowing some businesses to reopen.

“For me, this is the best day of the year, it reminds me how beautiful Lisbon is,” said Vadim Migirim, a 51-year-old Russian tourist touring the walls of the Sao Jorge castle — one of Portugal’s most visited monuments.

And infections have skyrocketed in Chile despite a relatively high number of vaccinations, forcing one of Latin America’s richest countries to close its borders.

Travellers flocked to the airport in the capital Santiago on Sunday before the closure.

Ismael Bustos, who was travelling to Mexico, said the closure was “100 per cent necessary”, adding: “I think we should have been locked up a long time ago.” — AFP

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