Vaccine hope, but enduring fear one year after pandemic declared

Brasília, March 11 (AFP/APP): The world on Thursday marked one year since the coronavirus threat was declared a pandemic, with vaccinations offering hope but much of humanity still enduring highly restricted lives with no clear path back to normality.

The enormity of the challenge entering the second year of the pandemic was highlighted Wednesday in Brazil, where a surge fuelled by more contagious new variants saw a record 2,286 deaths reported for the day.

Since first emerging in China at the end of 2019, the coronavirus has killed more than 2.6 million people and forced unprecedented curbs on movement that eviscerated economies. “It took a long time for the politicians to act… We are paying for it, the poor people,” said Adilson Menezes, 40, outside a hospital in Brazil’s biggest city Sao Paulo, where all non-essential businesses are closed to help fight the virus.

The World Health Organization officially declared Covid-19 a pandemic on March 11 last year as infection numbers were beginning to explode across Asia and Europe.

On the same day, actor Tom Hanks announced while on a filming mission in Australia that he had contracted the virus, deepening fears that no one was safe.

But with the United States only just starting to feel the direct impacts of the pandemic, then president Donald Trump played down the threat. “The virus will not have a chance against us,” Trump told the nation.

Under his chaotic leadership, the United States would become the hardest-hit nation: the American death toll today stands at more than 528,000. The only defences to the contagious virus one year ago appeared to be face masks and stopping people from interacting.

Global aviation came to a standstill and governments imposed deeply unpopular restrictions, forcing billions of fearful people into some form of lockdown. “We are on a war footing,” Corinne Krencker, the head of a hospital network in eastern France told AFP on March 11 last year, as patient and death numbers began to surge.

In Madrid, 70-year-old Jose Luis Lucas was taking his granddaughters out of the bustling city to a holiday home he hoped would be safer. “These are my grandchildren, I have to look after them, don’t I,” he told AFP on the day the pandemic was declared. “We will just have to avoid too many hugs and kisses.”

Though at the same time, governments and scientists were beginning the race to create vaccines — research and development that would take place at an unprecedented, breakneck pace. Today, several shots are being rolled out, including those developed in China, Russia and India.

More than 300 million vaccine doses have been administered in 140 countries, according to an AFP count. The global vaccine rollout has exposed power and wealth divides. Rich nations have surged ahead with their mass vaccination programs, while billions in poorer nations are still waiting to receive shots.

Hope for a global push has been boosted by the launch of deliveries under the WHO-backed Covax scheme, which aims to ensure equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines.

The success of the AstraZeneca/Oxford and Johnson & Johnson shots is further cause for optimism as they are easier to transport and store than the ones from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, which require ultra-cold refrigerators.

The European Union’s medical regulator was set to hold a meeting Thursday to discuss authorization for the J&J vaccine, which has already been approved by Canada and the United States. The US vaccination effort has gained momentum in recent weeks, with new President Joe Biden vowing to have enough doses in place within months for the entire American population.

His administration has also spearheaded a massive economic stimulus bill, which Biden is expected to sign Friday. Biden is scheduled to deliver a prime-time televised speech on Thursday in which he will offer an optimistic vision for his nation, and by extension the world. “There is real reason for hope folks, I promise you,” Biden said in a preview of his remarks, which will include his administration’s next steps against Covid-19.

“There is light at the end of the tunnel.”

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