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Schools return amid Omicron havoc, but hopes flicker

Children of the Covid era flocked back to school in various nations on Monday as the Omicron strain spread exponentially and tennis superstar Novak Djokovic’s battle to play laid bare global passions over vaccines.

Though Omicron is less dangerous than past waves, it has pushed cases worldwide beyond 305 million in the two-year pandemic that refuses to go away. Nearly 6 million people have died.

There are signs, however, of the variant waning in southern Africa where it was first detected in November, even as it fuels new surges from India to the United States and overwhelms some of the world’s best health systems in Europe.

In Spain, like other countries suffering massive absences of medics struck by Covid-19 themselves, one expert predicted an end to the nightmare soon.

“Spain has several weeks – basically all of January – of rising cases … then hopefully we’ll hit a plateau that goes down just as fast,” Rafael Bengoa, co-founder of Bilbao’s Institute for Health and Strategy, told Reuters.

The former senior World Health Organization (WHO) official considered it unlikely a worse variant than Omicron would come.

“Pandemics don’t end with a huge boom but with small waves because so many have been infected or vaccinated,” he said. “After Omicron we shouldn’t have to be concerned with anything more than small waves.”

World’s longest school shutdown
In Uganda, students returned to institutions shut nearly two years ago in the world’s longest educational disruption caused by the coronavirus.

That helped control the pandemic – with only 153,000 cases and 3,300 deaths recorded – but the government estimates about a third of pupils will never return, for reasons from poverty to pregnancies.

“We faced temptations,” said 16-year-old Rachael Nalwanga, happily returning to classes while many peers could not as they had taken jobs to help their families or had babies. “It has not been easy for me to keep safe at home for this long but I thank God,” she told Reuters in the town of Kayunga.

After the Christmas and New Year break, classes were also resuming in Spain, Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands and parts of Germany. Youngsters faced an array of measures from masks and fans in classrooms to testing and parents not allowed past the gates.

Italy’s new rules state that if there are two cases in a class, only recently-vaccinated or boosted pupils can stay, and that if there are three or more, they switch to remote learning.

Outside schools in Portugal’s capital Lisbon, there were mixed emotions, with some parents worried their children might be exposed but others relieved they could enjoy some normality.

“I think this (pandemic) will always be part of our lives so it’s important for them to socialise,” said Ana Amado, 33, dropping off her 11-year-old, Miguel.

Portugal’s one million schoolchildren were already returning a week later than usual due to Omicron, even though 89% of the eligible population is double-vaccinated.

Experts say the Omicron peak is yet to come in Europe, whose well-funded health systems were nevertheless creaking as record infection numbers brought staff shortages and more patients.

Britain, where deaths have surpassed 150,000, began using military personnel to support healthcare and alerted its biggest private health company to deliver key treatments including cancer surgery should matters worsen.

Spain was bringing back retired medics, while the Netherlands was mulling a change to let infected but asymptomatic staff keep working. In Italy, the challenge of nearly 13,000 infected health workers was compounded by suspensions for non-vaccination.

Anti-vaccination campaigners cheered on Serbia’s world tennis No. 1 Djokovic, who was freed from immigration detention after winning a legal case to stay in Australia where he is chasing a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam.

Djokovic, an opponent of mandatory vaccination, had been held in a row over a medical exemption that would allow him to play in the upcoming Australian Open. But a judge ordered him released.

There were political frictions too in France, where Stephane Claireaux, a member of the ruling LREM party, said he had been attacked over the weekend by protesters demonstrating against Covid health passes.

Pope Francis weighed into the debate, backing immunisation and warning against ideological stances bolstered by “baseless information” and “poorly documented facts.”

Australia, which had been relatively shielded, surpassed 1 million cases, with more than half in the past week.

India, too, has seen an eight-fold rise in daily infections over the past 10 days, though hospitalisations were far lower than in the previous wave driven by the Delta variant.

Nearly half a million people have died since the pandemic began in India, a nation of 1.4 billion. Indian officials have privately said they assume daily infections will surpass the record of more than 414,000 set in May.
Source: Reuters

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