Nature

Death toll nears 6 million as pandemic enters 3rd year


BANGKOK — The official global death toll from COVID-19 is set to eclipse 6 million, underscoring that the pandemic, now in its third year, is far from over.

The milestone is the latest tragic reminder of the relentless nature of the pandemic even as people shed their masks, travel resumes and businesses reopen around the world. The death toll, compiled by Johns Hopkins University, stood at 5,996,882 as of Sunday morning and is expected to cross the 6 million mark later today.

The remote Pacific islands, whose isolation had protected them for more than two years, are now grappling with their first outbreaks and deaths, fueled by the highly contagious omicron variant.

Hong Kong, which is seeing soaring deaths, is testing its entire population of 7.5million three times this month as it clings to mainland China’s ‘zero-COVID’ strategy .

As death rates remain high in Poland, Hungary, Romania and other Eastern European countries, the region has seen more than a million refugees arrive from war-torn Ukraine, a country with low vaccination coverage and high rates of cases and deaths.

And despite its wealth and the availability of vaccines, the United States alone is approaching one million reported deaths.

Global death rates are still highest among those unvaccinated against the virus, said Tikki Pang, visiting professor at the National University of Singapore’s medical school and co-chair of the Asia Vaccine Coalition. -Peaceful.

“It’s a disease of the unvaccinated – look what’s happening in Hong Kong right now, the health system is overwhelmed,” said Pang, the former director of research policy and cooperation with the World Health Organization. “The vast majority of deaths and severe cases are in the vulnerable, unvaccinated segment of the population.”

It took the world seven months to record its first million deaths from the virus after the pandemic began in early 2020. Four months later another million people were dead, and 1 million died every three months since, until the death toll reached 5 million at the end of October. Now it has reached 6 million – more than the populations of Berlin and Brussels combined, or the entire state of Maryland.

But despite the enormity of the figure, the world undoubtedly hit its 6 millionth death some time ago. Poor record keeping and testing in many parts of the world has resulted in an undercount of coronavirus deaths, in addition to an excess of pandemic-related deaths but no actual COVID-19 infections, such as the people who died of preventable causes but could not receive treatment because hospitals were full.

Edouard Mathieu, data manager for the Our World in Data portal, said that – when countries’ excess mortality figures are studied – up to almost four times the number of reported deaths are likely to have died from the pandemic.

An analysis of excess deaths by a team from The Economist estimates the number of deaths from COVID-19 to be between 14 million and 23.5 million.

“Confirmed deaths represent a fraction of the actual number of COVID deaths, primarily due to limited testing and difficulties in assigning cause of death,” Mathieu told The Associated Press. “In some, mostly wealthy, countries this fraction is high and the official count can be considered fairly accurate, but in others it is grossly underestimated.”

The United States has the highest official death toll in the world, but the numbers have tended to drop over the past month.

Lonnie Bailey lost his 17-year-old nephew, Carlos Nunez Jr., to COVID-19 last April — the same month Kentucky opened his age group up for vaccinations. The Louisville resident said the family is still in pain, including Carlos’ younger brother, who had to be hospitalized himself and still has persistent symptoms. The aggressive reopening of the country was shocking to them.

“For us, it is difficult to let our guard down; it’s going to take us some time to adapt,” Bailey said.

The world has recorded more than 445 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, and new weekly cases have recently declined in all regions except the Western Pacific, which includes China, Japan and South Korea, among others, the World Health Organization reported this week. .

Although the overall numbers in the Pacific islands seeing their first outbreaks are small compared to larger countries, they are significant among their tiny populations and threaten to overwhelm fragile health systems.

“Given what we know about COVID…it’s likely to hit them at least for the next year,” said Katie Greenwood, head of the Pacific Red Cross delegation.

Tonga reported its first outbreak after the virus arrived with international aid ships following the January 15 eruption of a massive volcano followed by a tsunami. It now has several hundred cases, but – with 66% of its population fully vaccinated – it has so far reported people with mostly mild symptoms and no deaths.

The Solomon Islands experienced the first outbreak in January and now has thousands of cases and more than 100 deaths. The true death toll is likely much higher, with the capital’s hospital overwhelmed and many dying at home, Greenwood said.

Only 12% of Solomons are fully immunized, although the outbreak has given the country’s vaccination campaign a new boost and 29% now have at least one vaccine.

The global vaccine disparity continues, with only 6.95% of people in low-income countries fully vaccinated, compared to more than 73% in high-income countries, according to Our World in Data.

A good sign, at the end of last month, Africa overtook Europe in the number of doses administered daily, but only around 12.5% ​​of its population received two injections.

The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continue to press for more vaccines, although this has been a challenge. Some shipments arrive with little warning to country health systems, and others are approaching their expiration date, requiring the doses to be destroyed.

Eastern Europe has been particularly hard hit by the omicron variant, and with the Russian invasion of Ukraine a new risk has emerged as hundreds of thousands of people flee to places like Poland on trains crowded. Health officials offered free vaccines to all refugees, but did not have them tested upon arrival or in quarantine.

“It’s really tragic because great stress has a very negative effect on natural immunity and increases the risk of infections,” said Anna Boron-Kaczmarska, a Polish infectious disease specialist. “They are very stressed, fearing for their lives, the lives of their children, their family members.”

Mexico has reported 300,000 deaths, but with little testing, a government analysis of death certificates brings the true number closer to 500,000. Still, four weeks of falling infection rates have left health officials optimistic.

In India, where the world was shocked by images of open pyres of bodies burned as crematoria were submerged, the scars are fading as the number of new cases and deaths has slowed.

India has recorded more than 500,000 deaths, but experts believe its true death toll is in the millions, mainly from the delta variant. Migrants from India’s vast hinterland are now returning to its megacities in search of jobs, and the streets are full of traffic. Shopping malls have customers, albeit still masked, while schools and universities welcome students after a months-long hiatus.

In Britain, infections have fallen since an omicron-induced surge in December, but remain high. England has now lifted all restrictions, including mask mandates and the requirement that anyone who tests positive isolate themselves at home.

With around 250,000 deaths reported, the lowest number of deaths on the African continent is thought to come from under-reporting, as well as a generally younger and less mobile population.

“Africa is a big question mark for me as it has been relatively spared the worst so far, but it could just be a ticking time bomb,” Pang said, noting its low rates. vaccination.

In South Africa, Soweto resident Thoko Dube said she received news of the deaths of two family members on the same day in January 2021 – a month before the country received its first vaccines.

It’s been tough, but “the family is coping,” she said. “We accepted it because it happens to other families.”

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AP reporters Jill Lawless in London, Aniruddha Ghosal in New Delhi, Cara Anna in Nairobi, Mogomotsi Magome in Johannesburg, Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Fabiola Sanchez in Mexico City and Heather Hollingsworth in Mission, Kansas, contributed to this story.

ABC News

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