Schools return amid omicron havoc, but hopes flicker

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 huge 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 within weeks.

“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.”


In Uganda, students were returning on Monday 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 in the East African nation – but the government
estimates about a third of pupils will now never return for a range of reasons,
from poverty to pregnancies.

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“We faced temptations,” said 16-year-old Rachael
Nalwanga, happily returning to classes while others of her generation had taken
jobs to help their families or had babies.

“I am excited that I am going back to school. 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
set to begin on Monday in Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and parts of Germany.
Youngsters faced an array of measures from mask-wearing 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.

Experts say the omicron peak is yet to come in Europe, whose
well-funded health systems were nevertheless creaking as record numbers of
COVID-19 infections brought staff shortages and more patients.

Britain, where deaths have surpassed 150,000, began using
military personnel to support the National Health Service and put its biggest
private health company on alert 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 the case of Serbia’s
world tennis No 1 Djokovic, who was freed from an immigration detention hotel
on Monday after winning a legal case to stay in Australia where he is chasing a
record-breaking 21st Grand Slam.

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Djokovic, a vocal anti-vaxxer, had been stopped at the
airport in a row over a medical exemption that would allow him to play in the
upcoming Australian Open. But a judge said that was unreasonable and ordered
him released.

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

Australia, which had been relatively shielded, surpassed 1
million COVID-19 cases, with more than half recorded in the past week, as the
omicron variant ripped through the country.

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.

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