The Malta Independent 4 December 2021, Saturday

Covid-19 virus surge in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Romania

Associated Press Saturday, 23 October 2021, 06:57 Last update: about 2 months ago

The Covid-19 virus continues to rear its head again in Eastern Europe, with new records of infections and deaths reached.

The following are stories from some countries that are experiencing another wave of the virus.

Russia's infections, deaths soar to new record high

Coronavirus infections and deaths in Russia climbed on Friday to another pandemic record high, putting an additional strain on the country's health care system.

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The government coronavirus task force reported 37,141 new infections and 1,064 deaths in the past 24 hours. That brought Russia's death toll to 228,453, Europe's highest by far.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has responded to the worsening situation by ordering Russians to stay away from work between Oct. 30 and Nov. 7, when the country will be observing an extended holiday.

Russian authorities expect the order to help limit the spread of the virus by keeping them out of offices and off public transportation, where mask mandates have been widely ignored. The government also urged local authorities to tighten their own restrictions during the period.

In some regions where the situation is even more worrisome, Putin said the off-work period could start as early as Saturday and be extended beyond Nov. 7.

 Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the possibility of extending the off-work order or ordering a tighter lockdown would depend on the evolving situation.

"If necessary, other decisions will be made," Peskov said in a conference call with reporters.

Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin followed up on Putin's order by introducing new restrictions in the capital, starting even earlier.

Gyms, cinemas and other entertainment venues, as well as most stores will close in Moscow from Oct. 28 to Nov. 7, along with kindergartens and schools. Restaurants and cafes will only be open for takeout or delivery orders during that period. Food stores and pharmacies can stay open.

Access to museums, theaters, concert halls and other venues will be limited to those holding digital codes on their smartphones to prove vaccination or past illness, a practice that will remain in place even after Nov. 7.

Russia's daily infections have been surging for weeks and mortality numbers topped 1,000 for the first time last weekend amid low vaccination rates, lax public attitudes toward taking precautions and the government's reluctance to tighten restrictions. Only about 45 million Russians — roughly a third of its nearly 146 million people — are fully vaccinated.

Belarus scraps short-lived mask mandates amid virus surge

Belarusian authorities on Friday horrified doctors by abolishing mask mandates, less than two weeks after their introduction for the first time during the pandemic and a day after the country registered a record number of new coronavirus infections.

The decision came after Belarus' authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko dismissed the measures as unnecessary during a meeting with officials earlier this week.

"It's just over the top to send police to track down those who aren't wearing masks," Lukashenko said. "We aren't the West."

The mask mandates were introduced on Oct. 9 amid a new wave of contagion. Belarusians had been required to wear medical masks in all indoor public areas, including public transport and stores.

On Thursday, the country officially reported 2,097 new confirmed infections, the highest number so far. Many have criticized the official figures as an undercount.

Dr. Nikita Solovei, a leading Belarusian infectious disease expert in the capital, Minsk, sharply criticized the decision to abolish mask mandates. He described it as "madness" amid soaring contagion, and warned that "officials will bear responsibility for that before law and the Belarusian people in the near future."

When the pandemic struck, Lukashenko had dismissed concern over the coronavirus as "psychosis" and refused to impose any restrictions. The country was the only one in Europe to keep holding professional soccer games with fans in the stands while the outbreak was in full swing.

While announcing the abolition of the short-lived mask mandates, Lukashenko, who has run the ex-Soviet nation of 9.3 million for more than 27 years with an iron hand, earning the nickname of "Europe's last dictator" in the West, added a touch of sardonic humor, saying: "This is the advantage of a dictatorship — whoosh, and a wrong decision is no longer valid."

Lukashenko's statement came even as daily infections have topped 2,000 in recent days, prompting Belarusian authorities to halt other medical services to allow hospitals to concentrate on treating COVID-19 patients.

Belarusian authorities have registered a total of more than 580,000 infections and 4,482 deaths. Only about 20% of the population have been vaccinated, with Russian and Chinese vaccines.

Romania revives restrictions as hospitals struggle, jabs lag

Doctor Petruta Filip is working 100-hour weeks at a Bucharest hospital which, like hospitals throughout Romania, is struggling under an onslaught of COVID-19 patients in a country with worryingly low vaccination rates.

The European Union country of around 19 million has only 35% of its adults fully inoculated against COVID-19 compared to an EU average of 74%, and is the second-least vaccinated nation in the 27-nation bloc in front of Bulgaria. That's crippling Romania's creaking health care system, which is also facing record-high death and infection numbers.

In an attempt Friday to curb the deadly surge and relieve pressure on hospitals, authorities approved tighter restrictions set to take effect on Monday. Vaccination certificates will be required for many day-to-day activities, such as going to the gym, the cinema, or a shopping mall.

For everyone, there will be a 10 p.m. curfew, shops will be shuttered at 9 p.m., bars and clubs will close for 30 days, and schools will close for an additional week over half-term starting Monday. Masks will be mandatory for everyone in public.

Romania on Tuesday registered record highs of nearly 19,000 infections and 574 deaths. More than 1,800 coronavirus patients are currently receiving intensive care treatment. Data from Romania's health authorities indicate that more than 90% of those dying of COVID-19 are unvaccinated.

It was a week in which dark scenes emerged of ambulances queued for hours outside hospitals waiting for beds to be made available. Romanian President Klaus Iohannis called it a "national drama of terrible proportions" and said there has been a "lack of concrete action" by authorities on preparing for the latest surge.

"A real catastrophe has been triggered in Romania and unfortunately until people convince themselves to get vaccinated, measures are needed," he said Wednesday.

The rapidly deteriorating situation in Romania, which now has one of the worst COVID-19 death rates in the EU, prompted the World Health Organization to send a senior expert, Dr. Heather Papowitz, to assist in strengthening its pandemic response.

Papowitz attended on Friday the opening of a three-day round-the-clock vaccination 'marathon' in Bucharest, which authorities hope will stimulate jab uptake. In the first eight hours more than 13,000 people received a vaccine, authorities said.

Ukraine sees new record high in virus deaths, infections

Ukraine's coronavirus infections and deaths reached all-time highs for a second straight day Friday, in a growing challenge for the country with one of Europe's lowest shares of vaccinated people.

Ukrainian health authorities reported 23,785 new confirmed infections and 614 deaths in the past 24 hours.

Authorities in the capital, Kyiv, shut schools for two weeks starting Friday, and similar measures were ordered in other areas with high contagion levels.

Authorities have blamed surging infections on a sluggish pace of vaccination in the nation of 41 million. Ukrainians can freely choose between Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Sinovac vaccines, but only about 15% of the population is fully vaccinated, Europe's lowest level after Armenia.

Overall, the country has registered over 2.7 million infections and about 63,000 deaths.

The steep rise in contagion has prompted the government to tighten restrictions. Starting Thursday, proof of vaccination or a negative test is required to board planes, trains and long-distance buses.

In Rivne, 300 kilometers (190 miles) west of Kyiv, the city hospital is swamped with COVID-19 patients and doctors say the situation is worse than during the wave of infections early in the pandemic that severely strained the health system.

 

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