India battered by second Covid wave as virus imperils Olympics

New Delhi (AFP) –


India's huge coronavirus second wave accelerated Thursday with a record number of infections reported, as a top Japanese politician warned Covid-19 could still derail the already delayed Olympics.

While nations like Britain have celebrated the beginning of normality and extended vaccine rollouts, some South Asian countries are grappling with fresh -- and more terrifying -- virus waves.

More than 200,000 cases were logged in the past 24 hours in India, where authorities are grappling with shortages of vaccines, treatments and hospital beds.

Having let its guard down with mass religious festivals, political rallies and almost unfettered sports crowds, the nation has this month seen two million fresh infections -- a figure that looks set to continue growing.

Siddharth Chakrapani, one of the organisers of India's massive Kumbh Mela festival, said devotees "believe that Maa (mother) Ganga will save them from this pandemic".

"Our faith is the biggest thing for us," he added.

This week India overtook Brazil to become the country with the second-highest number of cases worldwide. The United States holds the unenviable record of the highest death toll, at over half a million,

Delhi's much publicised vaccine drive to inoculate all 1.3 billion citizens has stumbled, with just 114 million shots administered so far.

Elsewhere in Asia storm clouds were once again gathering over the Tokyo Olympics.

Top politician Toshiro Nikai, the ruling party's number two, said the games must be cancelled "without hesitation" if the virus situation is too severe.

Although officials were quick to dismiss Nikai's remarks, public opinion is turning against the event with towns cancelling torch events as the nation worries over a fourth wave of infections.

Ukraine on Thursday launched a vaccination drive to innoculate its Olympic and Paralympic athletes

"We want all athletes to come to these competitions without any restrictions, we want to see the Ukrainian flag, hear the Ukrainian anthem," Health Minister Maksym Stepanov said in a statement.

- Grim milestone in France -

In Europe the share of Covid-19 related deaths in Europe among those over the age of 80 has reached the lowest level since the start of the pandemic, the World Health Organization said, as vaccine rollout programmes begin to take effect.

However France hit a grim milestone on Thursday, as its Covid-19 death toll climbed past 100,000 Thursday, with the virus claiming a further 300 lives in 24 hours, the country's health authority said.

"We will not forget a single face, a single name," President Emmanuel Macron tweeted, sending his condolences to victims' families and friends.

France becomes the third country in Europe to exceed 100,000 coronavirus deaths, after the United Kingdom and Italy.

In Britain crowds gathered in mosques during Ramadan -- not only to pray, but to receive a vaccine.

The pandemic has particularly hit ethnic minorities in the UK.

Vaccine hesitancy is disproportionately present among some groups, even as Britain drives ahead with a mass inoculation campaign that has so far seen more than 32 million people receive a jab.

But local leaders are cautiously optimistic as a fresh push for vaccines begins to reach these communities.

"The message is getting through," said Hasnayn Abbasi, a doctor heading the East London Mosque's vaccination centre.

Meanwhile Portugal announced a phased exit from its virus lockdown on Monday with the reopening of restaurants, shopping centres, theatres, high schools and universities, except in 11 municipalities with high Covid levels.

In Israel, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein announced that people will no longer have to wear masks outdoors starting from Sunday as the number of virus infections plummets there.

Israel's easing of restrictions stands in contrast to the occupied West Bank and the blockaded Gaza Strip, where infection rates remain high and vaccinations are low.

Rights groups say Israel must supply vaccines to the 4.8 million Palestinians living there, but Israel says Palestinians must obtain their own shots.

In New Zealand -- widely lauded for its adroit handling of the virus -- authorities began trialling a monitoring app designed to detect coronavirus before the user develops any noticeable symptoms.

In what is believed to be a world first, the "elarm" app connects to devices like fitness trackers and smart watches, using artificial intelligence to check for tell-tale signs.

- Very good boys -

Lebanese doctor Riad Sarkis has a very different suggestion to curb the deadly virus, as beside him one of his instruments enthusiastically wagged his tail.

Specially trained sniffer dogs can detect illness in a person in a few seconds, including in very early stages when a PCR test would yield a negative result.

"The day we build a machine with an electronic nose that amplifies smells 10,000 times, then we can replace the dogs. For now, we need them," Sarkis said.

Over 2.9 million people have died of Covid-19 around the world since the outbreak emerged in China in December 2019, according to a tally from official sources compiled by AFP.