Asian nations toughen virus curbs as Europe fights new strain
  • | AFP | January 08, 2021 11:05 AM
Countries in Asia were stepping up their fight against the coronavirus on Thursday to suppress a contagion they had previously tamed, as warnings grew in Europe over a new fast-spreading variant.

A worker checks a student's temperature at a school in Amritsar, India.

Japan declared a state of emergency in Tokyo as the capital region clocked a 24-hour record of almost 2,500 infections, while China imposed emergency measures to tackle an outbreak in the northern city of Shijiazhuang.

The restrictions follow a slew of new lockdowns and other restrictions announced in Europe this week and Canada ordering its first curfew of the pandemic.

The World Health Organization (WHO) warned on Thursday that European nations needed to ramp up efforts to deal with a new variant of the virus that had emerged in England and was spreading more quickly than other strains.

"This is an alarming situation," said WHO Europe chief Hans Kluge, calling on everyone to follow rules on social distancing, mask wearing and staying at home.

The global outbreak shows no signs of abating, with more than 1.8 million people known to have died worldwide from 86 million confirmed cases.

- 'Can't leave the city' -

Japan's outbreak has not been as severe as those in Europe and the US, but the government was forced to announce a month-long crackdown in the capital region on Thursday with new rules targeting restaurants and bars.

Businesses are being asked to stop serving alcohol by 7 pm and to close an hour later, while residents have been requested to avoid going out after 8 pm.

The minister in charge of Japan's pandemic response warned that Tokyo's medical system was "stretched thin", a major worry for a city gearing up to host the Olympic Games in the summer.

China reported 63 new infections Thursday -- the highest daily tally since July -- as authorities tried to stamp out an outbreak in a city of 11 million near Beijing.

The government in Shijiazhuang, in China's northern Hebei province, has closed schools, cut travel links and begun mass testing.

"I did the nucleic acid test last night, but don't have the results yet. Without it I can't leave the city," one young woman told state broadcaster CCTV.

One district in the city has been sealed off while major roads leading into the area have been closed and inter-city bus travel halted.

Experts see mass vaccinations as the best route back to normality, but the first rollouts have coincided with alarming spikes in deaths and caseloads across many parts of the world.

Global deaths soared beyond 15,700 on Wednesday -- a record daily figure -- before falling back to just over 14,600 on Thursday, with the virus raging across Europe and the Americas.

The US is regularly registering more than 3,000 deaths a day, with Mexico and Brazil not far behind.

Canada's hardest-hit Quebec province imposed a nighttime curfew for four weeks with fines of up to Can$6,000 (US$4,700) for transgressors.

Other parts of Canada already have restrictions on people's movements but it is the first such curfew in the country for a century, according to historians.

- 'Catastrophic' impact -

The EU on Wednesday cleared the Moderna vaccine for use in the 27-nation bloc, following the approval last month of the Pfizer-BioNTech jab.

Several European governments have been criticised for slow rollouts, France managing just a few hundred in a week and the Netherlands taking 10 days to begin its campaign.

And the vaccines have not yet relieved weary citizens from the burden of stay-at-home orders, curfews, closed shops and shuttered schools.

Britain began its third lockdown on Wednesday despite being praised for a relatively rapid rollout of jabs.

It is facing a more acute crisis than its European neighbours, regularly clocking more than 50,000 cases a day and 1,000 deaths.

A leaked document on Thursday suggested London's hospitals could be overwhelmed within two weeks despite the imposition of a national lockdown.

"Unless we take the lockdown seriously the impact on healthcare for the whole country could be catastrophic," said Rupert Pearse, a professor of intensive care medicine who works at Royal London Hospital.

In Senegal, where a poorly funded health system is stretched to breaking point and vaccines are still a distant dream, the government sparked angry protests by imposing a nighttime curfew.

"I have children and they're stopping me from working," said taxi driver Modou Niang who works at night, calling the curfew "nonsense".

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