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COVID keeps spreading death where vaccines haven’t reached

IF YOU’RE LIVING in Israel, the US or the UK, where vaccination programs are rolling out with remarkable speed, glimpses of a post-pandemic future are starting to appear: Schools have mostly reopened, family gatherings are being planned and summer vacations may be just over the horizon.

But move away from this handful of rich countries, and a darker reality emerges: The virus is still rampaging around most of the planet, and uneven vaccine distribution poses a major public risk as variants emerge.

Since mid-March, COVID-19 deaths have started trending upward again worldwide even as the numbers improved in the US and UK, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Last week, World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that the unequal supply of vaccines “is not just a moral outrage, it is also economically and epidemiologically self defeating.”

Worldwide, half a billion vaccine doses have been administered, according to Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker. While shots have been given in some 140 countries, the vast majority have gone to developed nations that secured early doses by the hundreds of millions. That disparity risks prolonging the pandemic, even for places currently leading the vaccination race.

“We need to try to bridge the gap between the vaccine haves and vaccine have-nots to really meet the goals that we’re seeking to achieve in ending this pandemic and getting our economies running again,” Thomas Bollyky, director of the global health program at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in an interview.

Covax, a facility that aims to distribute doses equitably around the globe, has started delivering shots to lower-income countries like Ivory Coast and Ghana, but the WHO has said more needs to be done. Here’s a look at how vaccine disparities and a resurgent virus are playing out in half-a-dozen countries.

Israel’s economy has mostly reopened now that half the country is fully vaccinated and new cases are plunging.

People are flocking back to the restaurants and bars that survived the pandemic, crowding the country’s beaches and enjoying live concerts and football matches in the early days of spring.

Israel is still closed to foreign tourists out of concern the spread of variants could undermine its vaccination program. Still, some hotels say they’re fully booked for the Passover holiday, which will be celebrated without new restrictions on movement. That’s a switch from last year, when lockdowns were imposed over the period to avoid a spike in cases.

The UK remains in a lockdown, but the government’s roadmap to reopening the economy has offered a pathway to normality for a population that’s being vaccinated faster than its European neighbors. The country recently passed the milestone of giving a first dose to more than half its adults. It set a daily record on March 20, inoculating almost 1.3% of the population on a single day. Hospitalizations also fell by more than a fifth from the week before, bringing some relief to the National Health Service. 

Schools have reopened and some employees are starting to return to offices in London’s financial districts, but residents won’t be able to eat at restaurants or buy non-essential goods in stores for another two weeks. Still, the government hopes to remove all lockdown restrictions, including allowing nightclubs to reopen, by June 21.

The daily death toll has fallen steadily since mid-February as states pushed to speed vaccinations and balanced medical concerns with protests by anti-lockdown groups.

Yet disparities remain. While New Mexico has given at least one dose to over a third of its population, Georgia has just managed a fifth. The inequities are also present among racial groups: in 16 US states and Washington, DC, less than 10% of the Hispanic population has been vaccinated as of Wednesday — a milestone most states reached with White populations weeks ago. Still, more than a quarter of Americans have received their first vaccine dose.

Restaurants in New York City — once the pandemic’s American epicenter — can now operate at 50% capacity indoors, with many diners taking advantage of covered sidewalk seating in Manhattan. The city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, has announced plans for a vaccination center on Broadway to inoculate theater-industry workers in preparation for a planned re-opening in September.

About a year after the virus first arrived and two months after vaccinations began, Brazil is going through its worst stretch of the pandemic yet.

The vast Latin American nation reported 3,650 deaths on Friday, its highest daily toll. On Wednesday, it became just the second country after the US to record 300,000 fatalities. Since starting inoculations in mid-January, just 6% of the population has received a dose. The crisis has prompted neighbors to close borders, impose travel bans and require forced quarantines.

President Jair Bolsonaro, who long downplayed the coronavirus, has now promised to speed up vaccination efforts. The pathogen’s resurgence follows months of relatively lax rules, which included New Year’s celebrations and clandestine parties around the Carnival season in Rio de Janeiro. The upswing also coincided with the growing dominance of a more contagious strain discovered in the northern city of Manaus.

India, a vaccine-making colossus key to supplying much of the world with low-cost shots, has struggled to immunize itself. Now the country of almost 1.4 billion is slowing exports to keep more doses at home after new infections climbed six-fold since February to more than 60,000 a day.

This week, the government expanded the rollout to everyone over the age of 45 and has allowed its huge network of private hospitals to charge a subsidized rate for the vaccines. Those moves have boosted immunization rates and may help Prime Minister Narendra Modi reach a target of inoculating 300 million Indians by August.

While India has been reluctant to reimpose lockdowns after a costly shutdown last year did little to halt the spread of the virus, there are increasing concerns that tighter restrictions may be needed.

A year after it became Europe’s first virus hotspot, Italy has again been forced to impose a costly lockdown.

In the nation with the highest death toll in the European Union (EU), daily fatalities have been climbing since the start of the month as a highly contagious strain spreads across the country. Prime Minister Mario Draghi has been pressing the EU to lean on pharmaceutical companies to respect vaccine delivery commitments while warning that Italy will block exports by firms that breach contracts.

A general has been appointed as a new virus czar to speed up the vaccine rollout and make sure that all Italian regions keep up the pace. Mr. Draghi hopes to gradually ease Italy’s lockdown after the Easter holidays and to vaccinate 80% of citizens by the end of September. — Bloomberg

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