Millions face Easter under COVID-19 curbs as US logs 100 million shots

Rome: Millions of Christians around the world prepared Saturday to spend another Easter weekend under restrictions because of coronavirus surges, but there was good news from the hard-hit United States, which crossed the milestone of 100 million vaccinations.

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There have been worrying spikes in infections in many parts of the world, even as vaccine rollouts gather pace, forcing the reimposition of deeply unpopular restrictions including in European nations.

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Italy began a strict Easter lockdown on Saturday, with the entire country considered a high-risk coronavirus “red zone” during a time when families usually hold reunions.

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At the Vatican on Good Friday, a handful of onlookers caught a glimpse of Pope Francis presiding over the “Way of the Cross” ceremony in an empty St. Peter’s Square, with COVID-19 restrictions preventing large gatherings there for a second year in a row.

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New restrictions also came into force Saturday in France, where authorities are scrambling to deal with a dramatic rise in cases that has overwhelmed hospitals in the capital Paris.

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Curbs had been already intensified in other European nations such as Belgium, and Germany – where the government scrapped plans for a strict Easter lockdown – saw Chancellor Angela Merkel urge people to limit their social contacts ahead of the break.

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“Doctors and nurses are doing everything they can,” Merkel said Thursday, warning that hospitals were filling up with younger people.

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“We shouldn’t leave them alone, but instead support them through our own actions… That means it should be a quiet Easter celebration, in a small circle, with strongly reduced contacts.”

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Across the Atlantic in Canada, similar restrictions were imposed ahead of Easter in Ontario and Quebec, the country’s two most populous provinces.

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But there was a step towards normal in Jerusalem’s Old City, where a lockdown dampened Easter last year.

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There was a modest crowd this year as most major sites opened thanks to Israel’s successful vaccine rollout.

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“Last year, it was very hard. We felt like the city was dead,” said Lina Sleibi, a Palestinian Christian who sings at church services in the nearby West Bank holy city of Bethlehem.

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Now, “you feel alive again”.

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‘We need to finish this job’

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The pandemic has claimed more than 2.8 million lives worldwide with no end in sight.

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But the United States, the nation hardest-hit by Covid-19, became the first nation to administer at least one shot to more than 100 million people – around half of its adult population.

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President Joe Biden has vowed to cover the vast majority within weeks.

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But infections remain on the rise in parts of the country. Despite the success of the vaccine rollout, Biden urged Americans to keep wearing masks and taking other precautions.

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“I plead with you. Don’t give back the progress we’ve all fought so hard to achieve,” he said in a brief address.

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“We need to finish this job.”

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The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has updated its guidance to say that fully vaccinated people can travel without observing quarantines, although they should still wear masks.

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Crisis in Latin America

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One of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks is devastating Brazil, which has reported more deaths than any country in the world after the United States.

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It is the epicentre of an unfolding crisis in Latin America, where infections have soared past 25 million, likely fuelled by a seemingly more contagious variant first detected in Brazil.

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The devastation in Brazil has frightened neighbours already battling their own surging caseloads.

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Peru has gone into an Easter lockdown, Chile has closed all borders, Ecuador announced fresh restrictions and Bolivia sealed its border with Brazil.

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Argentina’s President Alberto Fernandez announced late Friday that he had tested positive for the coronavirus. He had received the two-shot Sputnik V vaccine from Russia.

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The president, who turned 62 on Friday, was in isolation as a precaution but said he was “physically well”.

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“Although I would have liked to end my birthday without this news,” he said, “I am also in good spirits.”

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