College students wearing protective face masks queue up for COVID-19 vaccine, as cases surge in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan Province, Indonesia, on July 7, 2021. Image Credit: Via REUTERS

JAKARTA: Indonesia expanded nationwide restrictions on Wednesday to combat its deadliest coronavirus wave, as Japan scrapped the Olympic torch relay on Tokyo’s roads over infection fears.

While many wealthy nations are lifting restrictions because of successful vaccination drives, the World Health Organisation chief warned that the pandemic remains in a “very dangerous phase”.

The warning has been illustrated in recent weeks by outbreaks across the Asia-Pacific region, forcing the reimposition of punishing restrictions as governments try to contain the spread of the virus and find ways to accelerate their vaccination programmes.

Indonesia has become the region’s hotspot, with hospitals having to turn away patients, authorities forced to import oxygen supplies and a record 728 deaths reported on Tuesday.

On Wednesday the government expanded restrictions across Indonesia, after earlier clampdowns on the capital Jakarta and some other areas.

“Cases are also rising in other regions and we need to pay attention to the availability of hospitals (there),” said senior minister Airlangga Hartarto.

“Facilities in those regions are limited and overwhelmed.”

The new restrictions would apply to dozens of cities and extend across the vast archipelago nation of nearly 270 million people, which has been hammered by the highly infectious Delta variant that was first detected in India.

Delta-fuelled outbreaks have also led to the imposition of restrictions in Australia, including in its biggest city Sydney where lockdown orders on more than five million residents were on Wednesday extended by at least another week.

“This Delta strain is a game changer, it’s extremely transmissible,” said Gladys Berejiklian, premier of New South Wales state of which Sydney is the capital.

Australia has largely kept its outbreaks in check since the pandemic began, but the government is under increasing pressure over the slow rollout of vaccines.

“It’s still scary that the virus is out there,” said Menno De Moel, 44, at a vaccination centre in Sydney where he was getting his first shot.

“Hopefully this is going to be the last lockdown, but on the other hand anything that is needed, needs to be done.”

Olympic impact

The Tokyo Olympics, already delayed by a year, also remain plagued by coronavirus fears, with authorities and organisers trying to find ways to safely host one of the biggest sports events in the world just over two weeks before it begins.

Officials announced Wednesday that the Olympic torch relay had been scrapped on Tokyo’s roads to prevent crowds.

And, with infections on the rise, the government is expected to extend restrictions this week that will likely affect the number of fans that can attend Olympic events.

But in London, the Euro 2020 football tournament’s semi-finals and final are set to be held this week with 60,000 fans permitted at Wembley Stadium, despite Britain facing a new surge in infections.

Mass vaccinations, however, have stopped a resultant surge in hospital admissions or deaths.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced the end of most virus restrictions, such as face masks and indoor social distancing, in England. Other UK nations - Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - are moving more slowly.

‘Obnoxious’ anti-maskers delay flight

Despite the progress in some parts of the world, the pandemic remains in a “very dangerous phase”, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned on Tuesday.

“The countries that are now opening up their societies are those that have largely controlled the supply of life-saving personal protective equipment, tests, oxygen, and especially vaccines,” he said.

“Meanwhile, countries without access to sufficient supplies are facing waves of hospitalisations and death.”

The virus is known to have claimed close to four million lives worldwide.

The WHO has said its global appeal for funding for coronavirus vaccines, treatments, diagnostics and equipment was still $16.8 billion short - almost half its total needs.

Even in wealthier nations with successful inoculation programmes, authorities are wary of a resurgence and have kept some restrictions in place, such as the requirement for face masks on flights in the United States.

But an American Airlines flight from North Carolina to the Bahamas was delayed by a day after around 30 teenagers refused to wear masks, US media said Tuesday.

“It was bad. First, they were yelling. They were cursing,” witness Malik Banks told local station WSOC-TV.

“They were being very obnoxious.”