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Surging Covid cases make for another subdued Christmas Day

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ROME — Christians around the world celebrated their second Covid-19 Christmas as surging infections in many countries overwhelmed hospitals, canceled flights and curbed religious observances Saturday, a point in the pandemic when coronavirus vaccines were more available than ever.

While some countries in Asia imposed restrictions to try to contain the highly contagious omicron variant, governments in Europe and elsewhere preached common sense despite reporting record daily cases this week, advising their citizens to use masks and voluntarily limit the size of holiday gatherings.

The head of intensive care at a hospital in Marseille, France, said most of the Covid-19 patients are unvaccinated, while his staff members are exhausted or can’t work because they are infected.

“We’re sick of this,” Dr. Julien Carvelli, the ICU chief at Marseille’s La Timone Hospital, as his team spent another Christmas Eve tending to Covid-19 patients on breathing machines. “We’re afraid we won’t have enough space.”

Thousands of people across England got a vaccine booster shot for Christmas as new cases in Britain hit another daily record of 122,186. Dr. Emily Lawson, the head of the National Health Service’s vaccination program, thanked volunteers for being on hand for the holiday.

Pope Francis used his Christmas address to pray for some of those vaccines to reach the poorest countries. While wealthy countries have inoculated as much as 90% of their adult populations, 8.9% of Africa’s people are fully jabbed, making it the world’s least-vaccinated continent,

“Grant health to the infirm and inspire all men and women of good will to seek the best ways possible to overcome the current health crisis and its effects,” Francis said from the loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica. “Open hearts to ensure that necessary medical care — and vaccines in particular — are provided to those peoples who need them most.”

Only a few thousand well-wishers turned out for his noontime address and blessing, but even that was better than last year, when Italy’s Christmas lockdown forced Francis indoors for the annual “Urbi et Orbi” (To the city and the world) speech.

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At a reception center for asylum-seekers on the Mediterranean island nation of Cyprus, Patricia Etoh, a Catholic from Cameroon, said she did not have any special plans because it just did not feel like Christmas without her 6-year-old child, who she had to leave behind.

But she added: “We’re grateful, we’re alive, and when we’re alive, there’s hope.”

On the other side of the globe, hundreds of thousands of people in the Philippines, Asia’s largest Roman Catholic nation, spent Christmas without homes, electricity, or adequate food and water after a powerful typhoon left at least 375 people dead last week and devastated mostly central island provinces.

Gov. Arthur Yap of hard-hit Bohol province, where more than 100 people died in the typhoon and about 150,000 houses were damaged or destroyed, asked foreign aid agencies to help provide temporary shelters and water-filtration systems to supplement Philippine government aid.

“There is overwhelming fear. There are no gifts, there were no Christmas Eve dinners. There is none of that today,” Yap told The Associated Press.

Yap said he was happy that many Filipinos could celebrate Christmas more safely after Covid-19 cases dropped, but he pleaded: “Please don’t forget us.”

In South Korea, social distancing rules required churches to limit worshippers to 70% of seating capacity, and service attendees had to be fully vaccinated.

South Korea has been grappling with soaring infections and deaths since it significantly eased its virus curbs in early November as part of efforts to return to pre-pandemic normalcy. The country was eventually forced to restore its toughest distancing guidelines, including a four-person limit on social gatherings and a 9 p.m. curfew for restaurants and cafes.

Australia also had a Christmas with a surge of Covid-19 cases, its worst of the pandemic, which forced states to reinstate mask mandates and other measures.

Christmas celebrations were subdued in much of India, with more decorations than crowds: Authorities reintroduced nighttime curfews and restrictions on gatherings of more than five people in big cities like New Delhi and Mumbai. People attended midnight Mass in Mumbai and elsewhere, but in smaller numbers.

Adding to the customary stress of holiday travel, airlines around the world canceled hundreds of flights as the omicron variant jumbled schedules and reduced staffing levels.

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