How the world is grappling with another major coronavirus surge


The prospect of an express ticket out of the coronavirus pandemic spurred the fastest development of vaccines in human history. But disparities in access and stubborn anti-vaccine movements have meant a world without the coronavirus is looking more and more unlikely. There are nations learning to live with it. Most simply do not have that luxury.

While some, including Germany and Israel, have vaccinated more than two-thirds of their populations — the entire continent of Africa has only fully vaccinated some 2 percent of its population.

Seventeen months after the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, the global divisions created by the no longer novel coronavirus are starker than ever.

In Indonesia, there is a crisis of the dead. Under the strain of incoming bodies, the Cipenjo Cemetery in Bogor, West Java, has begun taking grave digging volunteers. At a coffin workshop in a Jakarta funeral complex, Reuters reported, coffin maker Olaskar Purba, 62, and his team had built a maximum of 10 caskets a day. But after cases spiked, they are assembling 30 daily. He nails boards and paints plywood red through the night, an endless stream of vessels to lay the pandemic dead to rest.

In recent weeks the country has had nothing but shortages — of oxygen, of hospital beds and of space to bury the dead. Oxygen prices doubled by the end of June; the critically ill were turned away from hospitals; and Jakarta is clearing lush fields for yet another grid of graves.

The sudden outbreak in July, fueled by the highly transmissible delta variant, has been explosive. It took over a year for Indonesia to exceed 50,000 covid deaths — but only nine weeks to double the number, making Indonesia the global covid epicenter. New infections peaked at over 56,700 in one day. Over 2,000 people died on July 27 alone.

The densely populated island nation is victim to what the United Nations coordinator in the country calls the “lack of global solidarity” on equitable vaccine access. Only 9 percent of Indonesia is fully vaccinated. “As sad as it is, Indonesia is certainly not the worst off; only 1.1 percent of people in low-income countries have received at least one vaccination dose,” U.N. Indonesia Resident Coordinator Valerie Julliand said on July 24.

England endured repeated lockdowns throughout the pandemic until boldly dropping virtually all coronavirus restrictions on July 19, dubbed “Freedom Day.” That was the date Johnson declared “personal decision” would unseat government controls. The U.K.’s worst covid surge peaked at a devastating seven-day average of nearly 60,000 new daily cases in January. But come July, the goal was no longer to vanquish covid at all costs. Instead, Johnson said England would have to “learn to live with the virus.”

“If we can’t reopen our society in the next few weeks, when we will be helped by the arrival of summer and by the school holidays,” Johnson said, “then we must ask ourselves ‘when will we be able to return to normal?’ ”

At a roller-skating disco the following week, some expressed that normalcy and lived with the virus, on wheels. On the first weekend in nearly 18 months London’s Roller Nation was allowed to resume at full capacity, skaters strapped up and rode alongside each other in the warm glow to the tune of 2000s R&B.

As more Britons embraced new freedoms, cases have plunged — puzzling scientists who expected them to soar.

But England has a vaccination rate few others can boast. A leader in immunization, England has given 73 percent of adults aged 18 and over both doses.

In Uganda, in late June, once-bustling streets were emptied. In response to a sharp surge in cases — rising tenfold in a month from under 100 daily cases to over 1,500 — President Yoweri Museveni placed one of Africa’s most unforgiving lockdowns over Uganda, banning all private and public vehicles and shuttering all nonessential businesses for 42 days.

Even so, as crowded city centers emptied, hospitals filled up. Mandela National Stadium, usually used for soccer matches, reopened as a makeshift hospital. The death of health care workers in rapid succession stymied covid treatments. Desperate Ugandans paid for fake vaccines in a scam. Covid patients gasping for breath avoided scarce hospital beds, fearing hiking fees: In a nation where the adjusted net national per capita income barely surpasses $650, the AP reported some hospitals charged over $1,500 a day.

By the end of July, cases subdued. Uganda had successfully broken the transmission chain — but it came with enormous sacrifice. To keep working through the dusk to dawn curfew, 600 vendors at Nakasero, hard-hit Kampala’s largest open-air market, reached a compromise with the government, reported Africanews with AFP. Prohibited from returning home after closing hours, the vendors slept overnight for weeks alongside their produce, some of it spoiling due to a sales downturn, on cold, wet market floors under government-donated mosquito nets.

“I am a single mother. I have kids at home,” vendor Josephine Navuga told the AP. “I feel the pain of leaving them at home alone. I don’t have anything to do apart from to stay here, at least I can look for something they can eat and not to take directly the covid to them.”

Though it beat this wave, Uganda faces an uphill battle: It has acquired and administered an amount of doses sufficient only to fully vaccinate 1.3% of its population.

In Kentucky, vaccines have been readily available for months. But the state is home to counties with some of the nation’s lowest vaccine uptake rates. Between vaccine hesitancy and skepticism, the state’s vaccination rate has plateaued.

In rural Lewis County — located in Northeastern Kentucky, where most counties are federally designated as medically underserved — only 27.5 percent have gotten vaccinated. Desperate to get the situation under control, health care workers offered to drive to the homes of anyone willing to get the jab.

The governor has taken a creative incentive approach: the chance to win big. Kentucky is offering a seven-figure cash prize for a vaccine, with the state’s “Shot at a Million” lottery.

“Please get vaccinated. Y’all might win the next one,” Lexington resident Patricia Short, the first $1 million prize winner, said at the awarding ceremony. She had previously been waiting for an unemployment check during the pandemic’s backlog. “Think about it, this doesn’t just happen. This is, movies … It happens in Kentucky, baby.”

On 100 radio stations in his home state, Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, a polio survivor, used campaign funds to air 60-second narrated ads urging Kentuckians to get vaccinated.

“These shots need to get in everybody’s arm as rapidly as possible, or we’re going to be back in a situation in the fall that we don’t yearn for, that we went through last year,” McConnell said. “I want to encourage everybody to do that and to ignore all of these other voices that are giving demonstrably bad advice.”

Tango has long flirted with the forbidden. When the Argentine partner dance was born in the late 1800s, it was banned for its “immorality.” Military regimes in the early 20th century, seeing the tango as too nationalist, blacklisted the homegrown dance and certain songs for lyrics espousing populist ideals. But tango persisted.

The pandemic brought its next challenge: It takes two to tango, after all.

But under a graffiti-covered overpass, where the sound echoes, Valeria Buono, 46, and Juan Carlos González, 64, began to dance. Others, missing the pastime and way of life in November, joined in.

Milongas, events where the Argentine tango is communally danced, are essential for many, especially retired Argentines. But the nation locked down hard and quick in March 2020. Once-packed dance halls emptied. Despite one of the world’s strictest total lockdowns, the virus broke through in the fall, leaving some questioning, what was it all for?

This milonga moved outside, socially distanced. Here, legs twist over each other, and masks largely stay on. Some take small risks to dance with a stranger, others stick to their bubble of two.

There is a sense of longing in tango music. It is fitting. The Argentine covid crisis deepened this spring, peaking in May with daily new cases topping 40,000. During the peak, the nation imposed a “circuit-breaker” lockdown — a snap closure to curb the surge. Then officials slowly rolled back restrictions until they authorized a partial reopening in August. Cases are slowing, but in the meantime, people are finding safer ways to continue their favorite pastime.

In a swift and controversial move in late July, the Bangladeshi government paused its tight lockdown for just over a week to open space for Bangladeshis to prepare for and celebrate the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. Tens of millions stepped out for eight days, , shopping at local markets and rushing back to home villages in packed ferries — in doing so, they were defying a fierce covid surge.

Bangladesh has a lot to lose. Before the week-long restriction recess, the nation had been almost entirely shut since July 1, with enforcing soldiers patrolling. The dense nation was already hitting a record death toll. New cases had been stretching beyond 10,000 per day. But the economy was crippled and straining under pressure, officials said, and the annual festival could be an economic buoy.

A record number of cows, goats, buffaloes and lambs were readied for ritual slaughter in Bangladesh during Eid, and a record number were sold online. App-facilitated animal sales spiked in a bid to beat pandemic crowds, Iftekhar Hossain, a livestock ministry spokesman, told AFP.

After the celebrations ended, Farhad Hossain, state minister for public administration, told the media, “We are going to enforce a very tough lockdown this time.” The damage may already been done: Cases are climbing, and exactly two weeks after the lockdown temporarily lifted, new daily cases surpassed 15,900 — figures already considered to be underreported.

For so long, it appeared Australia was doing everything right. Two early waves of the coronavirus were suppressed with contact tracing, localized snap shutdowns and extensive testing. Melbourne’s 5 million residents were shuttered for nearly four months, and when a handful of cases were detected in August, the city locked down for the sixth time. Australia has also largely sealed itself off from the rest of the world, requiring exemptions to leave and incoming traveler caps.

Australians who flout covid restrictions, or even transmit the virus accidentally, are shoved under the national spotlight for public shaming. Media outlets published a man’s name and photo after he visited five grilling supply vendors, miles apart, and a butcher shop while unknowingly infected with covid-19. He came to be known, and chastised, as “Barbeque Man.”

However its vaccine rollout has been sluggish and muddled by mixed messaging from the government. The country’s most populous state of New South Wales, which includes Sydney, reported a new daily high of coronavirus infections on Tuesday.

Lower backs lengthened, torsos turned and stomachs sucked in tight at a Stretch hot yoga session at Burbank’s Stretch studio in late July. Coated in a veneer of sweat, the bodies moved in rhythm to the tune of instructor Liz Baghaei’s fluid incantations: “Arms broader, Karina. Feet tight, you guys. Take a very deep breath and go. Lift your eyes, your nose, your mouth, your chin, your ribs, your chest. Yes, Anastasia, eyes up more. Keep looking up, Eric. ”

Flexibility is key, as it has always been with yoga. When the pandemic hit, Stretch founder, Baghaei, moved classes online, then outside. Yoga studios, home to heavy breathing and heavy sweating, were among the last places to reopen. Doors to this 105º studio room opened on March 22, as infections trended down and immunizations trended up and Los Angeles rolled back restrictions.

“Some people were deteriorating physically,” Baghaei said of the long lockdown. “I feel so lucky that we have such a magical thing that we get to do that some people don’t have.”

That “magical thing” lasted but 10 weeks. On July 27, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed its May guidance that vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks indoors. Now, Los Angeles County is back to masks, though enforcement is spotty. At Stretch, classes are smaller, memberships have been canceled and fear of the delta variant is keeping some students from returning, said Baghaei.

This patchwork of mandates, permissions and personal safety choices exists all around the country — and the world in a pandemic that continues to be defined by inequalities.

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