The Covid-19 pandemic has entered a critical phase as infections increase exponentially despite widespread measures aimed at stopping them, the World Health Organization has warned, with record case numbers in South Asia triggering tough new restrictions.

The coronavirus has already killed more than 2.9 million people and infected nearly 136 million across the world.

The WHO's technical lead on Covid-19 Maria Van Kerkhove said: "The trajectory of this pandemic is growing ... exponentially."

"This is not the situation we want to be in 16 months into a pandemic, when we have proven control measures," she told reporters, adding "we are in a critical point of the pandemic right now".

According to an AFP tally, health authorities across Europe have recorded more than a million Covid-19 deaths.

In the region's 52 countries and territories, stretching as far east as Azerbaijan and Russia, the death toll stands at least 1,000,288 dead, the highest of any global region.

According to the latest figures available, nearly 60% of the deaths in Europe happened in just six countries: the United Kingdom, with 127,100 deaths; Italy, with 114,612; Russia, with 103,263; France, with 99,163; Germany, with 78,452; and Spain with 76,525.

Meanwhile, India has overtaken Brazil as the country with the second-highest number of infections, after logging more than 168,000 new cases in a single day.

The recent, rapid increase of infections has taken India's total number of cases to 13.5 million, above Brazil's 13.48 million.

Experts have warned that huge, mostly maskless and tightly packed crowds at political rallies, mass religious festivals and other public places have fuelled the new wave of cases in India.

In the Himalayan city of Haridwar, Hindu pilgrims not wearing face coverings squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder on the banks of the Ganges River jostling for a dip as they observed a Kumbh Mela ritual, despite the risk of infection.

Held once every three years, Kumbh Mela is often labelled the world's largest religious gathering, but the 2021 event has posed a challenge to health officials who are struggling to enforce pandemic safety measures.

Several regions have tightened curbs on activity while Maharashtra, India's wealthiest state and current epicentre of the country's epidemic, imposed a weekend lockdown and night curfew.

But the government is desperate to avoid a repeat of last year's nationwide March shutdown - one of the world's toughest - which caused widespread human and economic misery.

Neighbouring Bangladesh has already resorted to drastic measures, announcing that it will close all offices for eight days, in an attempt to staunch its own spiralling outbreak.

The South Asian nation of 160 million people will virtually seal itself off, shutting down both international and domestic transportation from Wednesday.

All stores, except those supplying food, will close.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

But elsewhere, there were glimmers of hope in the drawn-out fight against the pandemic.

English pubs and restaurants can now serve people outside, a move welcomed by the hard-hit hospitality sector despite forecasts of wintry temperatures.

Barbers, hairdressers, indoor gyms and swimming pools have also reopened.

Retail parks and high streets are anticipating a shopping spree as non-essential stores open their doors again, hoping the partial reprieve after more than three months of stay-at-home orders will trigger a much-needed economic windfall.

Once the worst affected country in Europe, the UK launched a successful vaccination campaign coupled with lockdown measures that cut deaths by 95% and cases by 90% from January.


Latest coronavirus stories


In France, now the European country with the most infections, an expansion of the vaccine rollout has buoyed optimism among lockdown-weary residents.

Everyone over 55 years old is now eligible for Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca jabs.

In Greece, high school students were welcomed back to campus for the first time in five months today.

Students and teachers will be tested twice per week, but the reopening has some health experts worried since the country is still in the grips of the pandemic.

In other positive news, clinical trial results indicated that Regeneron antibody treatment used to treat Covid-19 patients also helps prevent infections.

German Covid-19 infections pass three million mark

The number of Covid-19 infections in Germany has passed the three million mark, according to figures published by the Robert Koch Institute disease control centre.

The total number of cases now stands at 3,011,513, with 78,452 deaths, the institute said.

However, the incidence rate over the past week, closely followed by authorities, was 136.4 per 100,000 inhabitants - below the level for tightening Covid-19 restrictions.

Germany remains gripped by rising infection rates, despite cultural venues, restaurants and leisure facilities having been closed for months.

Health authorities warned on Friday that hospitals could become overwhelmed without tougher national measures.

Japan begins Covid-19 shots for over 65s as fourth wave looms

Japan began Covid-19 vaccinations for its sizable elderly population today, with imported doses still in short supply and the pace unlikely to stop a fourth wave of infection.

Shots for people aged 65 and above began at some 120 sites across the country, using Pfizer's vaccine made in Europe and delivered to the regions in the past week.

Just 2,810 people in Tokyo are expected to get a shot from the first batch, while most regions will receive 1,000 doses or fewer, according to a health ministry schedule.

Japan has a rapidly ageing population totalling 126 million.

Tokyo has begun a month-long period of quasi-emergency measures to blunt a fourth wave of contagion driven by virulent mutant strains and with the planned start of the Olympic Games just over 100 days away.

Shots for the general populace are not likely to be available until the late summer or even winter, too late to stem a resurgence of cases that appears to be focused on people aged in their 30s and 40s.