Pope Francis prayed Saturday for an end to the coronavirus pandemic, using his Christmas Day address to urge health care for all and vaccines for the poor, and for dialogue to prevail in resolving the world’s conflicts.
Amid a record-setting rise in COVID-19 cases in Italy this week, only a few thousand people attended a rain-soaked St. Peter’s Square for Francis’s annual Urbi et Orbi (to the city and the world) Christmas address. Normally, the square would be packed with tens of thousands of holiday well-wishers.
At least they could gather this year. Italy’s 2020 holiday lockdown forced Francis to deliver a televised address from inside the Apostolic Palace to prevent crowds from forming in the square. Although Italy this week counted more than 50,000 cases in a single day for the first time, the government has not ordered another lockdown.
The Pope’s Christmas Day speech gives him an opportunity to draw a global audience’s attention to conflicts big and small. This year was no different. Francis lamented ongoing conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Iraq, newly flaring tensions in Ukraine and Ethiopia, and an “unprecedented crisis” in Lebanon.
Francis warned of the pandemic tendency to withdraw and isolate, urging dialogue to try to resolve world conflicts. He prayed in particular for those most affected by the COVID-19 virus, including women and children who have suffered increased abuse during lockdowns.
“Son of God, comfort the victims of violence against women, which has increased in this time of pandemic. Offer hope to young children and adolescents suffering from bullying and abuse.”
He prayed for “consolation and warmth” for older adults who are alone, as well as for health-care workers who “generously devote themselves” to caring for the sick.
“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,” he said. “Open hearts to ensure that necessary medical care — and vaccines in particular — are provided to those peoples who need them most.”
Francis delivered his speech hours after celebrating a midnight mass service for some 2,000 people, a fraction of the basilica’s capacity. The service actually began at 7:30 p.m., a nod to the 85-year-old Pope’s endurance and a holdover from last year, when the service had to end before Italy’s countrywide COVID-19 curfew.
For the second day in a row, Italy on Friday set a daily pandemic record with 50,599 new cases. Another 141 people died, bringing the official death toll in the pandemic to 136,386.
With the arrival of the Omicron variant in Italy, the Vatican secretary of state this week imposed a new vaccine mandate on Vatican staff, extending it to all employees except those who have recovered from COVID-19.
– From CBC News and The Canadian Press, last updated at 10 a.m. ET
What’s happening in Canada
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For more details on how COVID-19 is impacting your community — including hospital data and the latest on restrictions — check out the coverage from CBC newsrooms around the country.
Many provinces and territories are not expected to provide COVID-19 updates on Christmas Day. So far, only Nunavut has provided an update, reporting 11 new cases. All of the territory’s communities entered into a full lockdown on Friday that health official hope will break the transmission of the virus.
Coronavirus case figures have been growing in Canada, with Quebec, Ontario, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick and P.E.I. all reporting record-high numbers on Friday.
According to the open data portal in Quebec, slightly more than 10,000 new cases were added in the province, eclipsing the previous record of 9,397 new cases reported one day earlier. Details on COVID-19-related hospitalizations and vaccinations will be released next week.
“The Omicron variant is more contagious than anything seen since the start of the pandemic,” Premier François Legault wrote in a Christmas message posted to Facebook. “I count on your judgment to respect the instructions and to be careful.”
Ontario reported 9,571 cases, eclipsing the 5,790 the province posted on Thursday, along with six additional deaths.
Health Minister Christine Elliott tweeted that 508 people were hospitalized with the virus — 355 not fully vaccinated or with an unknown vaccination status. The number of people in Ontario intensive-care units (ICUs) due to COVID-19 hit 164. Of those, 136 were not fully vaccinated or had an unknown vaccination status and 28 were fully vaccinated, Elliott tweeted.
WATCH | Officials plead with public to get COVID-19 tests, booster shots:
British Columbia health officials announced 2,441 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, the fourth straight day with record daily case numbers in the province. On Wednesday, B.C. shut down bars, nightclubs and gyms, and banned gatherings such as weddings.
Officials also said contact tracing and testing sites are at maximum capacity. They urged residents not to seek testing for travel purposes and be proactive with self-isolation if they suspect they have COVID-19, as the screening needs to be available for those most at risk, as well as health-care workers who need negative tests in order to work.
In Manitoba, an all-time daily record of nearly 742 new COVID-19 cases was reported Friday, along with one additional death. At a news conference earlier in the day, Dr. Brent Roussin, the chief provincial public health officer, said the caseload is an underestimate because of a backlog in testing.
In the Maritimes, New Brunswick reported a new daily high of 265 cases on Friday and one new death.
As in many other jurisdictions, the province’s chief medical officer of health urged people to limit their contacts. People in New Brunswick were asked to stick to a steady bubble of 20 and, after Dec. 27, to a smaller, steady bubble of 10.
Prince Edward Island reported its highest-ever new daily cases at 40, as new pandemic restrictions around organized gatherings such as weddings, funerals, worship services and concerts went into effect.
In other parts of the country on Friday:
- Nova Scotia reported 611 new cases. While the province originally encouraged people to use rapid tests as a precautionary measure, it now is asking that the test only be used when people have symptoms or are identified as close contacts, in order to conserve resources.
- Newfoundland and Labrador reported 85 new cases. The province is back in COVID-19 Alert Level 3, with people asked to stay home as much as possible and to maintain a household bubble of up to 20 people.
- Yukon reported seven new cases.
- The Northwest Territories reported five new cases.
- Alberta and Saskatchewan did not provide updates on COVID-19 numbers on Friday.
– From CBC News and The Canadian Press, last updated at 2 p.m. ET
What’s happening elsewhere around the world
As of Saturday afternoon, more than 279.2 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University’s case-tracking tool. The global death toll stood at almost 5.4 million.
In the Americas, airlines continued to cancel hundreds of flights Saturday as staffing issues tied to COVID-19 disrupted holiday celebrations during one of the busiest travel times of the year.
FlightAware, a flight-tracking website, noted 888 flights entering, leaving or inside the U.S. cancelled Saturday, up from 690 Friday. About 200 more flights were already cancelled for Sunday. FlightAware does not say why flights are cancelled, but Delta, United and JetBlue on Friday had all said the Omicron variant was causing staffing problems leading to flight cancellations.
In Europe, thousands of people across England are spending a few minutes to line up under leaden winter skies to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as the Omicron variant fuels a surge in infections across the country.
The Good Health Pharmacy in north London is one of dozens of vaccination sites that kept their doors open Saturday to administer so-called jingle jabs amid a government push to offer booster shots to all adults by the end of the year. Pharmacist Fenil Lalji said the shop’s owners decided to stay open because they lost a family member to the pandemic and wanted to do what they could to help others stay safe.
France recorded a record-high 104,611 infections on Saturday, breaking the 100,000 threshold for the first time since the pandemic began as the Omicron variant continued its rapid spread. Health authorities said the number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care rose by 28 to 3,282.
In Africa, Kenya will offer COVID-19 booster shots to individuals six months after their initial shots, the Health Ministry said in a document published Saturday. The country confirmed the presence of the Omicron variant within its borders almost two weeks ago, and on Friday registered its highest rate of positive COVID-19 tests, nearly 33 per cent positive cases from a little more than 9,000 tests.
WATCH | Movie theatres staged 2021 comeback but future uncertain:
In Asia, three members of the K-pop superstar group BTS have been infected with coronavirus after returning from abroad, their management agency said. RM and Jin were diagnosed on Saturday evening, the Big Hit Music agency said in a statement. It earlier said another member, Suga, tested positive on Friday. All three took their second jabs in August, the agency said.
Xian in northwest China reported an increase in daily COVID-19 infections, and local companies curtailed activity as the country’s latest COVID-19 hot spot entered its third day of lockdown. The city of 13 million detected 75 domestically transmitted cases with confirmed symptoms for Friday, its highest daily count of the year and reversing the previous day’s decline, official data showed on Saturday.
In the Middle East, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, has tested positive for COVID-19 and is displaying mild symptoms. The Istanbul-based Patriarchate said Friday that Bartholomew, who is 81 and recently had heart surgery, is fully vaccinated. It added “his general condition is good.” The Patriarch has urged people to get their shots and follow the recommendations of doctors.
– From The Associated Press and Reuters, last updated at 2 p.m. ET