Biden Orders Flags at Half Mast to Mark 500K Covid Deaths, UK to Ease Lockdown
U.S. President Joe Biden will lead a remembrance ceremony Monday to mark 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 growing optimism.
With the U.S. 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.
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, the government said life could get back to normal by the end of June.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined a "gradual and cautious" approach to lifting curbs in England, starting with the return of pupils to schools from March 8, and non-essential retail from April 12.
Some fans could be able to attend sporting fixtures from May 17, with all social distancing restrictions removed from June 21.
Still, in a reminder that there is unlikely to be a clear end date to worries about the easily transmittable virus, Biden's chief medical advisor Anthony Fauci reaffirmed that Americans may have to wear masks into 2022.
The US toll stood at 499,056 on Monday mid-morning, according to Johns Hopkins University. Globally, the figure was 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.
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 -
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 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.
Biden has made it a priority to get 100 million people vaccinated within the first 100 days of his administration.
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, further south, 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.