Britain dives back into normal life as India battles new surge

London (AFP) –


Britons enjoyed the freedoms of a pint and a haircut on Monday as months-long coronavirus curbs eased, although in South Asia record case numbers triggered tough new restrictions.

The sharp contrast in their fortunes exemplifies the mixed virus picture around the world, where fast vaccinating countries like Britain are leaving others behind.

More than 2.9 million people are now known to have died globally after catching Covid-19, with tens of millions infected.

India on Monday overtook Brazil as the country with the second-highest number of infections, after logging more than 168,000 new cases in a single day.

The recent, rapid increase of infections has taken the total number of cases there to 13.5 million, above Brazil's 13.48 million.

"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, 28, a waiter in Mumbai.

"Nobody follows the rules in the restaurant... If we tell customers to wear masks, they are rude and disrespectful to us."

Experts have warned that huge, mostly maskless and tightly packed crowds at political rallies, mass religious festivals and other public places have fuelled the new wave of cases.

In the Himalayan city Haridwar on Monday, maskless Hindu pilgrims squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder on the banks of the Ganges River jostling for a dip as they observed a Kumbh Mela ritual, despite the risk of infection.

Held once every three years, Kumbh Mela is often labelled the world's largest religious gathering, but the 2021 event has posed a challenge to health officials who are struggling to enforce pandemic safety measures.

Several regions have tightened curbs on activity while Maharashtra, India's wealthiest state and current epicentre of the country's epidemic, imposed a weekend lockdown and night curfew.

But the government is desperate to avoid a repeat of last year's nationwide March shutdown -- one of the world's toughest -– which caused widespread human and economic misery.

Meanwhile Bangladesh has already resorted to drastic measures, announcing Monday it will shutter all offices for eight days, in an attempt to staunch its own spiralling outbreak.

The South Asian nation of 160 million people will virtually seal itself off, shutting down both international and domestic transportation starting Wednesday.

All stores, except those supplying food, will close.

"There is no alternative now," Farhad Hossain, junior minister for public administration, said ahead of the clampdown.

- Glimmers of hope –

But elsewhere, there were 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 forecasts of 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".

Barbers, hairdressers, indoor gyms and swimming pools have also gotten the go-ahead to reopen.

Retail parks and high streets are anticipating a shopping spree, hoping that the partial reprieve after more than three months of stay-at-home orders will trigger a much-needed 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 continent's worst-hit country, an expansion of the vaccine rollout on Monday has buoyed optimism among lockdown-weary residents. Everyone over 55 years old is now eligible for Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca jabs.

Even as the initially sluggish inoculation campaign ramps up, epidemiologists have cautioned against reopening schools anytime soon.

Yet in Greece, high school students were welcomed back to campus for the first time in five months on Monday. Students and teachers will be tested for Covid-19 twice per week, but the reopening has some health experts worried since the country is still in the grips of the pandemic.