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China pioneers ‘virus passports’ as EU gets Russia jab boost

(Countries like Brazil and Mexico are struggling to get the pandemic under control. Photo: AFP)

BEIJING, (AFP):- China has launched a system of “virus passports” to kickstart international travel, as Russia sealed its first deal on Tuesday to manufacture the Sputnik V jab in the European Union.

Other nations like Brazil and Mexico are still struggling to get the pandemic under control, although there was a glimmer of hope from the OECD as it raised global economic growth forecasts for this year.

Chinese citizens can download the new certificates and use them to enter and leave the country, with the foreign ministry saying the system was intended “to help promote world economic recovery and facilitate cross-border travel”.

It is being hailed as the world’s first virus passport — with similar schemes under discussion in the United States and the EU.

However, the Chinese scheme is not mandatory and, as it is only available for Chinese citizens, it is not yet clear how it could work internationally.

While China looks to open up travel, other countries were again cracking down, with targeted lockdowns hitting individual communities in the hard-hit Philippines capital Manila and Estonia reintroducing some restrictions, including school closures.

Like China, where just 3.65 percent of people have been vaccinated, the EU is struggling to step up its rollout, but officials promise 100 million shots will enter the bloc each month from April to June.

The EU was given a further potential boost on Tuesday with an announcement that 10 million doses of the Sputnik V jab would be produced in Italy in the second half of 2021.

Russia’s provision of the shots around the world, including to some smaller EU countries, has been a coup for Moscow’s image. But European Council president Charles Michel accused Russia of “propaganda” using “highly limited but widely publicised operations to supply vaccines”.

– ‘Anti-vax hysteria’ –

Much of the world is still struggling to break the grip of a pandemic that has killed more than 2.6 million people in a little over a year.

More than 700,000 people have now lost their lives in Latin America and the Caribbean, with Brazil and Mexico accounting for the lion’s share of deaths.

But there has been some progress in Africa, where Sudan became the latest country to begin inoculating health workers using shots received through the Covax initiative.

A day after International Women’s Day, World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that violence against women “has been exacerbated by the pandemic” — although it was already “endemic in every country and culture”.

Around one in three women worldwide — around 736 million people — have suffered violence at some time in their lives, mostly at the hands of intimate partners according to a WHO report.

Countries around the globe are also suffering disinformation attacks, with the Czech Republic especially exposed to false social media claims that vaccines can “change your DNA” or panic-inducing stories of seniors dying en masse after receiving the jab.

After years of immigration lies, “Covid arrived, and the amount of disinformation just exploded,” Bohumil Kartous, a spokesman for a network that aims to battle disinformation, told AFP.

In Ukraine, Health Minister Maksym Stepanov said the low number of people — 19,000 — who have been vaccinated in the first two weeks of the country’s push was down to “anti-vax hysteria” against the Covishield vaccine, an Indian-made version of the AstraZeneca jab.

Conversely, Bosnians were “justifiably” unhappy that Covax was taking so long to deliver promised doses, the country’s foreign minister said.

– ‘Rock bottom’ –

The virus and the severe restrictions imposed to battle its spread have crushed global economic growth and plunged millions into poverty.

But economic forecasters are slowly beginning to see signs of a recovery — thanks to a huge stimulus package expected to soon clear the US Congress and the continuing rollout of vaccines.

The Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says it now expects the global economy to grow by 5.6 percent this year, an increase of 1.4 points from its December forecast.

A rebound can’t come soon enough for many economies, with South Africa — the continent’s most industrialised nation — booking its first annual contraction in 11 years in 2020, shrinking seven percent according to official data released Tuesday.

In the wealthy Italian city of Milan, hundreds are queueing every day for charity food parcels.

“I’m ashamed to be here. But otherwise I would have nothing to eat,” 60-year-old Giovanni Altieri told AFP.

“I’m at rock bottom here. I have no income and live off my savings.”

Some areas of life will take longer to get back to normal, with Japanese media reporting that overseas spectators may be barred from travelling to the country for the year-late Olympics.

Around 900,000 tickets have reportedly been sold outside Japan.

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