The French returned to their beloved cafe terraces on Wednesday, while the EU said its borders will be opened to vaccinated travellers as life crept back to normal in Europe after months of punishing restrictions.
But India was still grappling with a spiralling outbreak, once again hitting a record daily number of coronavirus deaths as hospitals struggled to keep up with climbing cases.
As health workers administered the world’s 1.5 billionth COVID-19 vaccine dose, there was hope that immunisation campaigns would allow countries to finally emerge from the pandemic.
The EU said Wednesday it would allow fully vaccinated visitors into the bloc and increase the level of new cases that a country can hit before being declared unsafe — which would open up travel into Europe from more places.
It was the latest step towards a return to normal in Europe that in recent days has seen Britain open pubs, gyms and other indoor venues, Italy relax curfews and Portugal welcome returning tourists.
France joined the party on Wednesday, allowing outdoor dining at cafes, bars and restaurants, as well as visits to museums, cinemas and theatres after six months of restrictions and ahead of a full reopening of the economy on 30 June.
“It feels good. There is a sense of euphoria in the city centre,” said Patricia Marchand, a manager of the Cafe des Feuilles in the northwestern city of Rennes.
In Paris, demand for tickets to a Renaissance sculpture show was brisk at the world’s most visited museum, the Louvre.
Austria also relaxed measures Wednesday, reopening restaurants and bars after six months — but only for those who have tested negative, have received at least one vaccine shot or recovered from coronavirus.
“It feels strange after so many months,” 46-year-old Christoph Neubauer said over coffee in Vienna with a colleague.
And in New York, rules requiring masks and social distancing were also set to ease, although some residents remained cautious.
“I think it is too early,” said Manhattan restaurant manager Juan Rosas, who plans to still require masks, even for vaccinated patrons.
“I think they rushed the decision.”
Vaccinations speed up
The slow rebirth of communal life in Europe and the US is being fuelled by quickening vaccination programmes, after more than a year of battling a pandemic that is known to have claimed more than 3.4 million deaths worldwide.
According to an AFP tally, more than 1.5 billion vaccine doses have now been administered in 210 countries and territories.
Nearly three-fifths of the total has been given in three countries: China (435.7 million), the United States (275.5 million) and India (185.8 million).
In Israel, nearly six in 10 residents have been completely vaccinated, while 32 percent of Europeans have received a dose.
Only 11 countries have yet to roll out vaccines.
The Serum Institute of India — the world’s largest vaccine maker — said Tuesday it hoped to resume exports by the end of the year, reopening a vital supply line to many poorer countries.
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson meanwhile told parliament that government was increasingly confident that existing vaccines worked against all variants of the virus, including the B1617.2 strain that has hit India so hard.
Devastation in India
In a grim reminder of the persistent devastation of the virus, India’s fragile healthcare system is struggling with a surge that has killed 283,248 people, including a record 4,529 in the last 24 hours.
Experts say the true toll is likely much higher.
The latest wave has ravaged India for six weeks, feeding on shortages of hospital beds, oxygen and critical drugs.
The country was battling dual crises Wednesday, as at least 91 people were killed and dozens still missing after a monster cyclone slammed into the west coast.
In Mumbai, authorities had to move about 600 COVID-19 patients from field hospitals “to safer locations” and vaccinations were briefly suspended.
The pandemic has also robbed thousands of children of one or both parents.
In New Delhi, six-year-old twins lost both their parents to the disease.
“I keep telling the girls their parents will come home soon,” said an uncle who is now taking care of them.
“I don’t want to tell them the truth now… they’re too young.”
Elsewhere in Asia, Taiwan and Singapore have seen a fresh spike in cases, as has Japan where concerns are mounting over the Tokyo Olympic Games due to open on 23July.
Most Japanese want the games postponed again or cancelled, but the chief of the International Olympic Committee chief Thomas Bach said Wednesday most athletes and team members staying at the village would be vaccinated.