Russia speeds up vaccination drive; In Israel and beyond in Mideast, vaccines bring political power; With heavy hearts, Italians mark year of outbreak, pay tribute to dead


From The Associated Press


Media  – Russia’s rollout of its coronavirus vaccine is beginning to pick up speed in some of its more remote regions, but experts say the campaign is still moving slowly.


That’s why elderly residents of Ikhala, a snow-covered village near the border with Finland, from where Daria Litvinova reports, were relieved to hear they were finally going to get their shots.


The region was hit hard by the virus in December. Experts blame the slow rollout on limited supplies of the vaccine, logistical difficulties in distribution and continued hesitance among some Russians.


The country doesn’t regularly release data on its vaccination rates, but the number who have gotten at least the first shot appears to be between 2 million and 3.2 million.


Israel Vaccines: Moving on from oil and arms? Vaccines are emerging as the newest currency of choice in the Middle East. The reopening of Israel’s economy, an Israeli government prisoner swap with Syria and the arrival of vaccines in Gaza all illustrate how those with access to vaccines have political power in the turbulent region. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been at the forefront of this trend, using his vaccination campaign to win over voters and punish those who refuse to get inoculated, Josef Federman reports from Jerusalem.


The disparities between Israel’s successful vaccination push with its own population and the Palestinians have drawn criticism from U.N. officials and rights groups. They contend that Israel, as the occupying power, is responsible for vaccinating the Palestinians, while Israel has argued that under interim peace agreements it is not responsible. Israel’s vaccination campaign has included its own Arab population.


Britain Vaccinations: The government has said it’s aiming to give every adult in the country a first dose of vaccine by July 31, as it prepared to set out a “cautious” plan to ease the U.K.’s lockdown. In addition, the goal is for everyone over 50 or with an underlying health condition to get a shot by April 15, rather than the previous target of May 1. More than 17.2 million people in Britain have been given the first of two doses of vaccine. Britain has had more than 120,000 coronavirus deaths, the highest toll in Europe. Jill Lawless reports from London.


Italy One Year Later: ”It was like a war film. We were completely alone,” the mayor of  Vo, a wine-making town in the Veneto region, recalls. It was where the first known fatality from a locally transmitted case of the virus in the West occurred on Feb. 21, 2020, setting off alarm bells far and wide. In the days and weeks that followed, densely populated Lombardy would become the epicenter of Italy’s outbreak and, by the end of March, countries the world over would be under lockdowns to slow the spread of the virus that has now taken 2.4 million lives.


But Vo, from where Colleen Barry reports, as one of the first towns in the West to be isolated, has a unique story, providing some of the first scientific insights into the deadly virus. A year on, Italy has so far seen more than 95,000 known virus dead, the second-highest toll in Europe after Britain.


On Saturday, Pope Francis and Italy’s president marked a newly established annual day to honor doctors, nurses and other health care workers, exactly one year after the nation’s first known native case of COVID-19 emerged in Codogno in Lombardy.


With wreath-laying ceremonies, tree plantings and church services, Italians also marked one year since their country experienced its first known virus death on Sunday. Towns in Italy’s north were the first to be hard-hit by the pandemic and put under lockdown, and residents paid tribute to the dead.


Iraq’s New Surge: Doctors are confounded by widespread shirking of precautions even as cases surge dramatically in Iraq. The country is now under a new, government-imposed curfew. A month ago, new infections in Iraq were as low as 600 a day but have now surged, reaching nearly 4,000 and approaching the peak from last September. Many defy hospital rules requiring masks, putting their faith, they say, in God instead. And for weeks, markets, malls and stores have been packed with people. A sociologist says that after years of facing war, violence and instability, COVID-19 “may not stack up as a major problem” in the minds of many Iraqis. Abdulrahman Zeyad reports from Baghdad.


Asia-Pacific Vaccines: Australia has started its COVID-19 inoculation program days after its neighbor New Zealand, with both governments deciding their pandemic experiences did not require the fast tracking of vaccine rollouts that occurred in many parts of the world. Other countries in the Asia-Pacific region that have dealt relatively well with the pandemic either only recently started vaccinating or are about to, including Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia and Singapore.

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