US President Joe Biden will commemorate half a million deaths from Covid-19 in the United States

Washington (AFP) - US President Joe Biden will lead a ceremony Monday marking the dark milestone of 500,000 American Covid-19 deaths, but plans for easing the lockdown in Britain and a surge in vaccinations worldwide prompted new optimism.

With the US death toll on the brink of hitting half a million – the highest impact on any country – Biden ordered flags on federal government buildings to be flown at half mast for five days.

The president was scheduled to address the nation from the White House before attending a candle-lighting ceremony and moment of silence with wife Jill, Vice President Kamala Harris and her husband Doug Emhoff.

The event will “highlight the magnitude of the loss,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. But “he will also speak to the power of the American people to turn the tide on this pandemic by working together.”

A health worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine on February 22, 2021 in Israel, which maintains a tight blockade on Gaza, where some 20,000 Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine doses have arrived from the United Arab Emirates

Unlike his predecessor Donald Trump, who often sought to minimize the disease, Biden has made the pandemic his top priority, simultaneously pushing an aggressive vaccine rollout and making frequent, public shows of empathy.

It is a strategy that could make or break the Biden presidency, already juggling high-stakes economic challenges and the tense political aftermath of the Trump era.

Biden has warned that the US toll could still go “well over” 600,000. But signs are also emerging that progress is being made both in the United States and around the world, with infections dropping sharply and vaccine deliveries rising steadily.

In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined a “gradual and cautious” approach to lifting curbs in England that could see life there return almost to normal by the end of June. The first step will be the return of children to schools from March 8.

There was also good news from a University of Edinburgh study finding that Pfizer and Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccinations have led to a “substantial reduction” in Covid-19 admissions to hospitals in Scotland.

Graphic highlighting the countries with the largest number of Covid-19 cases and deaths in the past week.

The US death toll stood at 499,902 on Monday late afternoon, according to Johns Hopkins University. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control, said US deaths are at their lowest since December, with a 39 percent drop in the latest seven-day average of new daily cases.

Globally, the toll is approaching 2.5 million.

- India struggles -

After America’s first Covid-19 death was announced in February last year, it took about three months to pass the 100,000 mark, during a first wave that hit New York particularly hard.

But as the outbreak surged across the country, the pace of deaths increased, with the toll jumping from 400,000 in just over a month after a spike fueled in part by holiday gatherings.

Shoppers wearing face masks keep their distance from one another at the Dupont Circle Market in Washington

Meanwhile India, the world’s second worst-hit nation in terms of infections, passed a bleak threshold on Monday by registering its 11 millionth case following a renewed rise in cases.

Fresh restrictions on gatherings came into force in the western state of Maharashtra, home to financial capital Mumbai, which has logged almost 52,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

The vast nation’s inoculation drive is creeping slowly, and India’s Serum Institute – the world’s biggest vaccine maker – has urged other countries to be “patient,” saying it has been told to prioritize the home market.

In the capital New Delhi, vegetable vendor Radhekrishna Negi spoke for many around the world, telling AFP: “I am fed up of corona.”

- Australia delivers first shots -

US President Joe Biden (L) appears alongside his top virus expert Anthony Fauci, who says a sense of normalcy may only return by the end of 2021

According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 61 million people have received at least one shot of vaccine in the United States, with some 18 million getting the full two doses.

In Australia, top officials Sunday were among a small group receiving the first vaccinations, a day before the program starts in earnest.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison got the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine at a medical center in Sydney, in what the government said was a bid to boost public confidence after some anti-vaccine protests.

And in Gaza on Sunday, some 20,000 Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine doses arrived from the United Arab Emirates.

The shots came via the Rafah crossing with Egypt, meaning they did not pass through Israel, which has maintained a tight blockade on Gaza since 2007.

Britain’s government has vowed to offer a first dose to every adult by the end of July. More than 17 million people have now received at least a first vaccine dose – one third of the adult UK population.

Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of German pupils returned to schools and kindergartens for the first time in two months on Monday.

In Hong Kong, leader Carrie Lam received a shot of the Chinese Sinovac drug after the financial hub last week fast-tracked its approval.

And Air New Zealand said it will trial a digital travel pass to give airlines and border authorities access to passenger health information, including their Covid-19 vaccination status.

But the World Health Organization criticized wealthy countries for hogging Covid vaccines, preventing availability for poorer nations.

Countries like the United States have contributed money for procurement to supply poor countries, but the WHO said funds are useless if no vaccines are available.

“Even if you have the money, if you cannot use the money to buy vaccines, having the money doesn’t mean anything,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

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