Pandemic hits 'critical point' as Europe deaths top one million

Death toll reported across Europe's 52 countries totalled 1,000,288 at 6.30pm

A woman wearing a face mask and holding a cup looks on at the Vauxhall tube station amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in London, Britain January 12, 2021. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
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Europe passed the grim milestone of one million coronavirus deaths on Monday, as the World Health Organisation warned that infections are rising exponentially despite widespread efforts to stop them.

The death toll across Europe's 52 countries, compiled by AFP from official sources, totalled 1,000,288 by 6.30pm 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.

Coronavirus has already killed almost 3 million people and infected almost 137 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 feed and a haircut.

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

In South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa called for African-made vaccines as the continent lags behind, struggling with inadequate supplies, logistical problems and lack of financing.

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

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

But both giants are battling severe Covid-19 outbreaks, with India overtaking Brazil on Monday as the country with the second-highest number of infections after more than 168,000 new cases in a day.

Experts have warned that huge, mostly maskless crowds at political rallies and religious festivals have fuelled India's cases.

In the Himalayan city Haridwar, maskless Hindu pilgrims on Monday 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 centre of its epidemic – imposing a weekend lockdown and night curfew.

Neighbouring Bangladesh has announced it will virtually seal itself off, shutting down international and domestic transport starting on Wednesday while closing offices to try to staunch its outbreak.

Across the Muslim world, worshippers are preparing for the start of their second Ramadan of the pandemic, with the holy fasting month due to start in many countries on Tuesday.

In Egypt, the Arab world's most populous nation, the sanitary measures are less strict than a year ago when mosques were shut completely and a curfew was in force.

The mood in Cairo was relatively cheerful as the city prepared for special prayers on Monday night, with bright lights festooning the streets.

But many of those rushing around the city shopping for last-minute supplies were maskless.

Saudi authorities have meanwhile said that only people immunised against Covid-19 will be allowed to perform the year-round Umrah pilgrimage from the start of Ramadan.

In Britain, despite one of the world's highest Covid-19 death tolls, there were glimmers of hope on Monday as pubs and restaurants were allowed to serve people outside in 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. We're still here to tell the tale."

England's hairdressers, indoor gyms and swimming pools were also allowed to reopen.

Britain launched a successful vaccination campaign coupled with lockdown measures that cut deaths by 95 per cent and cases by 90 per cent from January.

Italy has also been one of Europe's hardest-hit countries, and on Monday Rome had the latest in a series of anti-lockdown demonstrations, with several hundred people turning out in protest against weeks of restaurant closures.

In France, now the European country with the most infections, an expansion of the vaccine introduction has buoyed optimism among lockdown-weary residents.

Everyone aged over 55 years is now eligible for a Covid-19 vaccination.

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