Pandemic death toll tops 6 million for third year

BANGKOK (AP) — The official global death toll from COVID-19 passed 6 million on Monday, underscoring that the pandemic, now in its third year, is far from over.

The milestone, recorded by Johns Hopkins University, is the latest tragic reminder of the relentless nature of the pandemic as people drop their masks, travel resumes and businesses reopen around the world.

The remote Pacific islands, whose isolation protected them for more than two years, are only now struggling with their first outbreaks and deaths caused by a highly contagious omicron variant.

Hong Kong, which has seen a skyrocketing death toll, is testing its entire population of 7.5 million three times this month as it clings to mainland China’s “COVID zero” strategy.

As death rates remain high in Poland, Hungary, Romania and other Eastern European countries, more than 1.5 million refugees have arrived in the region from war-torn Ukraine, a country with poor vaccination coverage and high rates of illness and death.

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And despite its wealth and the availability of vaccines, the United States alone is approaching 1 million recorded deaths.

The death rate worldwide is still highest among people not vaccinated against the virus, said Tikki Pang, visiting professor at the National University of Singapore School of Medicine and co-chair of the Asia Pacific Immunization Coalition.

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

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

But, despite the monstrous figure, the world, of course, once experienced its 6 millionth death. Poor reporting and testing in many parts of the world has led to an underreporting of coronavirus deaths, in addition to excess deaths related to the pandemic but not from actual COVID-19 infection, such as people who died from preventable causes but could not receive treatment. because the hospitals were full.

Édouard Mathieu, head of data at Our World in Data, said that if countries look at the rates of excess deaths, almost four times the reported death toll is likely due to the pandemic.

An analysis of excess deaths by The Economist team puts the number of deaths from COVID-19 between 14.1 million and 23.8 million.

“Confirmed deaths represent a fraction of the true number of deaths from COVID, mainly due to limited testing and problems establishing cause of death,” Mathieu told The Associated Press. “In some, mostly rich, countries, this share is high, and official data can be considered quite accurate, but in others they are very underestimated.”

The United States has the highest official death toll in the world, but the numbers have been on a downward trend over the past month.

Lonnie Bailey lost his 17-year-old nephew, Carlos Nunez Jr., who contracted COVID-19 last April — the same month that Kentucky opened vaccinations for his age group. The Louisville resident said the family is still suffering, including Carlos’ younger brother, who himself was hospitalized and still has symptoms. The aggressive opening of the country irritated them.

“It is difficult for us to let our guard down; we will need time to adjust,” Bailey said.

The World Health Organization reported this week that there are more than 445 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 globally, with the number of new weekly cases recently declining in all regions except the Western Pacific, which includes China, Japan and South Korea. .

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

“Given what we know about COVID … it will likely hit them for at least the next year or so,” said Kathy Greenwood, head of the Pacific Red Cross delegation.

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

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

Only 12% of Solomon Islanders are fully vaccinated, although the outbreak has given new impetus to the country’s vaccination campaign and 29% have now received at least one shot.

Global vaccine disparity persists, 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.

The good news is that at the end of last month, Africa surpassed Europe in the number of doses administered daily, but only about 12.5% ​​of its population received two shots.

The African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still requires additional vaccines, although this has been a problem. Some shipments arrive without much warning to countries’ health systems, while others arrive with an expiration date, forcing doses to be destroyed.

Eastern Europe has been particularly hard hit by the micron option, and with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a new risk has emerged as hundreds of thousands of people flee to countries like Poland on overcrowded trains. Health officials offered free vaccinations to all refugees, but did not test them upon arrival or quarantine.

“This is really a tragedy, because severe 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 under a lot of stress, fearing for their lives, the lives of their children, their family members.”

Mexico has reported 300,000 deaths, but after some testing, a government analysis of death certificates brings the real number closer to 500,000. Still, four weeks of declining infection rates have given health officials optimism.

In India, where the world was shocked by images of open-air bonfires when crematoria were overcrowded, scars are fading as the number of new cases and deaths slowed.

India has recorded over 500,000 deaths, but experts believe the true toll is in the millions, mostly due to the delta variant. Migrants from India’s vast hinterland are now returning to its metropolitan areas in search of work, and the streets are crammed with cars. There are shoppers in malls, albeit wearing masks, and schools and universities are accepting students after a months-long hiatus.

In the UK, infections have declined since a spike caused by omicrons in December, but remain high. England has now lifted all restrictions, including mask-wearing requirements and the requirement that anyone who tests positive must self-isolate at home.

Some 250,000 deaths are believed to have been recorded, with the lower death toll on the African continent due to underreporting and a younger and less mobile population.

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

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

It was difficult, but “the family is coping,” she said. “We accepted it because it happened to other families.”


AP journalists Jill Lawless in London, Aniruddha Gosal in New Delhi, Kara Anna in Nairobi, Mogomotsi Magome in Johannesburg, Monika Szyslowska in Warsaw, Fabiola Sanchez in Mexico City, and Heather Hollingsworth in Mission, Kansas, contributed to the story.


Follow David Rising on Twitter @davidrising


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