New virus lockdowns in Europe, overseas fans banned from Tokyo Olympics

France, Poland, Ukraine impose fresh restrictions as new global infections climb 14% in past week; Pakistan PM Imran Khan tests positive; row over AstraZeneca vaccine continues

A health worker pauses in the ICU unit for COVID-19 patients at the Hospital das Clinicas in Porto Alegre, Brazil, March 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Jefferson Bernardes)
A health worker pauses in the ICU unit for COVID-19 patients at the Hospital das Clinicas in Porto Alegre, Brazil, March 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Jefferson Bernardes)

Several European countries introduced new lockdown measures Saturday as they battled surging coronavirus infections, while Tokyo Olympics organizers were forced to announce an “unavoidable” ban on overseas fans to keep the games safe.

Residents in Poland, parts of France and Ukraine’s capital Ukraine all faced new restrictions, with most shops shut and people urged to work from home.

Elsewhere in Europe, frustrations with COVID-19 curbs were spilling over, with scuffles breaking out at a large anti-restrictions protest in the German city of Kassel, and thousands joining similar demonstrations in Liestal, Switzerland and London.

“End the lockdown” and “Corona rebels,” read signs held by demonstrators at the protest in Kassel, which was organized by a group that has drawn in activists from both the far-left and far-right as well as anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists.

People without face masks attend a protest against government restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus, in London, March 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

In Africa, Madagascan President Andry Rajoelina reiterated his own vaccine skepticism, adding that it would be an untested herbal remedy he has previously touted “that will protect me and my family.”

The pandemic is still speeding up worldwide, with the number of new COVID-19 infections rising globally by 14 percent over the past week, according to AFP data.

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, Nov. 19, 2020 (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan became the latest world leader to test positive — two days after receiving China’s Sinopharm vaccine.

The former cricketing legend is self-isolating with mild symptoms, his spokesman said.

France’s ‘lockdown-lite’

More than a third of France’s population is now under a renewed lockdown as the country, along with several European neighbors, battles a third wave of the virus.

But the curbs are lighter than those enforced at the height of the pandemic last year, with schools remaining open and hairdressers, shoemakers and chocolate shops added to an expanded list of businesses allowed to accept customers.

Medical staff in a room of a COVID patient in the ICU unit at the Ambroise Pare clinic in Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris, March 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

The government has also scrapped the forms once required to justify all trips outside the home, which were widely derided as an example of excessive French bureaucracy.

On the sunny banks of the River Seine, some Parisians questioned whether the restrictions could really be described as a “lockdown” at all.

“I can’t see any change, apart from the closed shops,” said a resident named Philippe, strolling with his daughter in the midst of cyclists and joggers.

Medical staff write their names on their outfits as they work in the intensive care unit of the Casalpalocco COVID-19 hospital in Rome, Italy, March 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

AstraZeneca dispute escalates

The dispute over AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine meanwhile shows no signs of abating, with EU chief Ursula von der Leyen threatening to halt exports of the shot if the bloc does not receive its deliveries first.

The Anglo-Swedish pharma giant has delivered only 30 percent of the 90 million vaccine doses it had promised for the first quarter of the year, blaming production delays at its EU plants.

“We have the option of banning a planned export. That’s the message to AstraZeneca: you fulfill your contract with Europe first before you start delivering to other countries,” von der Leyen told Germany’s Funke media group.

European officials are furious that AstraZeneca has fallen short on the continent while fully delivering on its UK commitments — something that has allowed the recently-departed EU member to give half of its adult population at least one shot as of Saturday.

AstraZeneca has also had to contend with worries that its jab may cause blood clots, with more than a dozen countries pausing its use recently.

Several European countries including Germany and Italy resumed AstraZeneca vaccinations Friday after an all-clear from EU regulators and the World Health Organization.

But Scandinavian nations Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland have all said they want more information before deploying the vaccine again.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures after receiving the first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, March 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein, Pool)

Seeking to reassure their populations, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his French counterpart Jean Castex both received a dose of AstraZeneca on Friday.

“I literally did not feel a thing. It was very good, very quick,” said Johnson, who became seriously ill from COVID-19 last year.

Brazil, meanwhile, said it was in talks with the US to import COVID-19 vaccines that Washington is not currently using and has already vowed to share with Mexico and Canada.

Foreign fans banned from Olympics

With more than 400 million vaccine doses already injected globally, organizers of the Tokyo Olympics had previously billed this summer’s Games as a chance to provide “proof of humanity’s triumph over the virus.”

But on Saturday, Olympics chiefs announced that overseas fans would be banned as it remains too risky to invite large international crowds to Japan.

“We have to ensure a safe and secure environment for all the participants,” said Tokyo 2020 chief Seiko Hashimoto. “It was an unavoidable decision.”

The unprecedented ban will make the Tokyo Games the first ever without overseas spectators.

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