CHENNAI: A municipal worker drives an auto-rickshaw decorated with mock syringes through the streets to boost awareness on the importance of COVID-19 vaccination yesterday. - AFP

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia has suspended flights to three countries, including the neighboring United Arab Emirates, as countries around the world rushed to contain the rapid spread of the highly contagious Delta variant. Flights to and from the UAE, alongside those to Ethiopia and Vietnam, will be suspended from today, a Saudi interior ministry official said, quoted by the state news agency SPA. Saudi citizens and residents returning from these countries will be required to quarantine for 14 days, it added.

Citizens would be banned "from travelling directly or indirectly, without obtaining prior permission from... authorities". The decision was taken due to "the spread of a new mutated strain of the (COVID-19) virus", it added, without explicitly mentioning the increasingly globally emergent Delta variant. The move comes seven weeks after the oil-rich kingdom permitted fully immunized citizens to travel abroad, after a ban on foreign trips that lasted more than a year. The UAE, and especially Dubai, is a key leisure destination for Saudis.

The variant, first detected in India and now present in at least 85 countries, is the most contagious of any COVID-19 variant yet identified. The UAE announced last week it had recorded cases of the Delta variant and it has suspended flights to and from India. In Kuwait, the head of the supreme committee for COVID-19 Dr Khaled Al-Jarallah yesterday said the Delta variant continues to affect unvaccinated people, who make up the majority of patients in hospitals and intensive care units.

Meanwhile, Russia has so far ruled out a new lockdown to fight surging Delta cases, even as it reported 697 more deaths yesterday - setting a new nationwide record for the fifth straight day. Second city Saint Petersburg hosted a Euro 2020 quarterfinal between Spain and Switzerland on Friday night, with concern raised after hundreds of cases were detected among spectators attending games across the continent.

Russia had hoped its vaccination campaign would tamp down a new wave, but it has met with widespread skepticism and a sluggish rollout, with only 16 percent of Russia's 146 million people having been jabbed. AFP journalists saw hundreds of people waiting at vaccination points across Moscow on Friday. Last week President Vladimir Putin urged Russians to "listen to experts" rather than rumors about the virus and vaccines.

Iran, battling the Middle East's deadliest outbreak of the coronavirus, has warned it could be hit by yet another wave of infections. "It is feared that we are on the way to a fifth wave throughout the country," President Hassan Rouhani told a meeting of Iran's anti-virus taskforce, warning the public to be careful as "the Delta variant has spread" in southern provinces.

Iran's health ministry has classified as "red" - the highest category on Iran's coronavirus risk scale - the capital Tehran and nine other cities in Tehran province. The southern and southeastern provinces of Fars, Hormozgan, Kerman and Sistan-Baluchistan are also now classified as "red". In red zones, all shops must stay shuttered except for those considered essential, including grocery stores and pharmacies.

Yesterday, Alireza Raisi, the spokesman for the anti-virus taskforce, called for "strict controls of the country's borders", especially those on the eastern side of Iran. Strangled by US sanctions that have made it difficult to transfer money to foreign firms, Iran says it is struggling to import vaccines for its population of 83 million. Just over 4.4 million people have received a first dose of anti-COVID vaccine in Iran, while only 1.7 million have received the necessary two jabs, the health ministry says.

The authorities in Iran have approved emergency use of two locally produced vaccines. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei received the first dose of one on June 25, his office announced on Twitter. The health ministry yesterday reported 111 new COVID deaths and another 8,341 infections in Iran, taking the overall number to 84,627 fatalities and 3,241,037 cases.

The Delta variant has propelled a resurgence of the virus which has already killed nearly four million people, forcing numerous nations to reimpose restrictions well over a year after the pandemic first swept the world. Thousands of troops and police hit the streets in Indonesia to enforce a partial lockdown imposed yesterday, as the country recorded a record 27,913 new daily cases as well as 493 deaths. Mosques, restaurants and shopping malls were shuttered in the capital Jakarta, across the main island of Java and on Bali after the daily caseload quadrupled in less than a month, with the Delta variant blamed.

The overwhelmed healthcare system is teetering on the brink of collapse as jammed hospitals turn away patients, forcing desperate families to hunt for oxygen tanks to treat the sick and dying at home. Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, Myanmar ordered two million people in the second city of Mandalay to stay at home Friday as the coup-hit country struggles to contain coronavirus cases. New measures were also put into place in Portugal, with an 11 pm to 5 am curfew entering force overnight for nearly half the population in a bid rein in rising Delta infections.

The Delta variant has driven outbreaks in places that had previously been able to mostly avoid the pandemic's ravages. Fiji, which went an entire year without recording any community coronavirus cases until Delta arrived in April, recorded its biggest-ever infection increase yesterday. Authorities reported two deaths and warned of more to come as the virus threatens to overwhelm the South Pacific nation's health system. Only about one percent of Fiji's 930,000 people have been fully vaccinated, with the Red Cross blaming misinformation spread online for hampering the rollout.

Africa has also been largely spared the worst of the pandemic, but infection numbers have increased in the continent for six weeks running, driven by the Delta variant. Deaths rose by 15 percent across 38 African countries to nearly 3,000 in the same period. "The speed and scale of Africa's third wave is like nothing we've seen before," Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization's regional director for Africa, said last week. South Africa, the continent's worst-hit country, posted a new record of 24,000 cases on Friday. "We are indeed... in the eye of the storm of the third wave," Deputy Health Minister Joe Phaahla said.

Meanwhile in Italy, 300 healthcare workers have lodged a legal challenge against the requirement that they get vaccinated against coronavirus, according to media reports. "This isn't a battle by anti-vaxxers but a democratic battle," constitutional lawyer Daniele Granara, who helped build up the case, told the Giornale di Brescia newspaper. - AFP