- Children return to classes as Omicron rips round world
- New strain is less dangerous and may wane within weeks
- Djokovic detention saga in Australia stokes vaccine debate
- Omicron decimates ranks of health workers in many nations
Children of the covid era flocked back to school in various nations on Monday as the Omicron strain spread exponentially and tennis superstar Novak Djokovic's battle to play laid bare global passions over vaccines.
Though Omicron is less dangerous than past waves, it has pushed cases worldwide beyond 305 million in the two-year pandemic that refuses to go away. Nearly 6 million people have died.
There are signs, however, of the variant waning in southern Africa where it was first detected in November, even as it fuels huge new surges from India to the United States and overwhelms some of the world's best health systems in Europe.
In Spain, like other countries suffering massive absences of medics struck by covid-19 themselves, one expert predicted an end to the nightmare within weeks.
"Spain has several weeks - basically all of January - of rising cases ... then hopefully we'll hit a plateau that goes down just as fast," Rafael Bengoa, co-founder of Bilbao's Institute for Health and Strategy, told Reuters.
The former senior World Health Organization (WHO) official considered it unlikely a worse variant than Omicron would come.
"Pandemics don't end with a huge boom but with small waves because so many have been infected or vaccinated," he said. "After Omicron we shouldn't have to be concerned with anything more than small waves."
World's longest school shutdown
In Uganda, students were returning on Monday to institutions shut nearly two years ago in the world's longest educational disruption caused by the coronavirus.
That helped control the pandemic - with only 153,000 cases and 3,300 deaths recorded in the east African nation - but the government estimates about a third of pupils will now never return for a range of reasons, from poverty to pregnancies.
"We faced temptations," said 16-year-old Rachael Nalwanga, happily returning to classes while others of her generation had taken jobs to help their families or had babies.
"I am excited that I am going back to school. It has not been easy for me to keep safe at home for this long but I thank God," she told Reuters in the town of Kayunga.
After the Christmas and New Year break, classes were also set to begin on Monday in Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and parts of Germany. Youngsters faced an array of measures from mask-wearing and parents not allowed past the gates.
Italy's new rules state that if there are two cases in a class, only recently-vaccinated or boosted pupils can stay, and that if there are three or more, they switch to remote learning.
Experts say the Omicron peak is yet to come in Europe, whose well-funded health systems were nevertheless creaking as record numbers of covid-19 infections brought staff shortages and more patients.
Britain, where deaths have surpassed 150,000, began using military personnel to support the National Health Service and put its biggest private health company on alert to deliver key treatments including cancer surgery should matters worsen.
Spain was bringing back retired medics, while the Netherlands was mulling a change to let infected but asymptomatic staff keep working. In Italy, the challenge of nearly 13,000 infected health workers was compounded by suspensions for non-vaccination.
Anti-vaxx hero djokvic
Anti-vaccination campaigners cheered the case of Serbia's world tennis 1 No. Djokovic, who was freed from an immigration detention hotel on Monday after winning a legal case to stay in Australia where he is chasing a record-breaking 21st Grand Slam.
Djokovic, a vocal anti-vaxxer, had been stopped at the airport in a row over a medical exemption that would allow him to play in the upcoming Australian Open. But a judge said that was unreasonable and ordered him released.
There were political frictions too in France, where Stephane Claireaux, a member of President Emmanuel Macron's ruling LREM party, said he had been attacked over the weekend by protesters demonstrating against covid health passes.
Australia, which had been relatively shielded, surpassed 1 million covid-19 cases, with more than half recorded in the past week, as the Omicron variant ripped through the country.
India, too, has seen an eight-fold rise in daily infections over the past 10 days, though hospitalisations were far lower than in the previous wave driven by the Delta variant.
Nearly half a million people have died since the pandemic began in India, a nation of 1.4 billion. Indian officials have privately said they assume daily infections will surpass the record of more than 414,000 set in May.