The global death toll from pandemic now exceeds 6 million for the third year

BANGKOK – The official global death toll from COVID-19 on Monday eclipsed 6 million – underscoring that the pandemic, now entering its third year, is far from over.

The milestone, recorded by Johns Hopkins University, is the latest tragic reminder of the unrelenting nature of the pandemic, even as people remove masks, travel resumes and businesses reopen around the globe.

Remote Pacific islands whose isolation has sheltered them for more than two years are grappling with their first outbreaks and deaths, fueled by the highly contagious Omicron variant.

Hong Kong, which is seeing a spike in deaths, is testing its entire population of 7.5 million three times this month as it adheres to mainland China’s “zero-COVID” strategy.

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

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

Mortality rates worldwide are still highest among people who have not been 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.

“This is a disease of the unvaccinated – look what’s happening in Hong Kong right now, the healthcare system is being overwhelmed,” said Pang, the former director of research policy and collaboration with the World Health Organization. “The vast majority of deaths and severe cases are in the unvaccinated, vulnerable 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 had died and since then 1 million have died every three months until the death toll reached 5 million at 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 enormity of the number, some time ago the world undoubtedly experienced its 6 millionth death. Poor record-keeping and testing in many parts of the world has resulted in an undercount of coronavirus deaths, adding to excess deaths related to the pandemic but not from actual COVID-19 infections, like people who have died from preventable causes, but none could get treatment because the hospitals were full.

Edouard Mathieu, data director of the Our World in Data portal, said that if you examine countries’ excess mortality numbers, almost four times the reported death toll is likely to have died from the pandemic.

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

“Confirmed deaths represent a fraction of the true number of deaths from COVID, largely due to limited testing and challenges in assigning the cause of death,” Mathieu told The Associated Press. “In some, mostly rich countries, this proportion 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 been falling over the past month.

Lonnie Bailey lost his 17-year-old nephew, Carlos Nunez Jr., who contracted COVID-19 last April — the same month Kentucky opened its age group to vaccinations. The Louisville resident said the family is still suffering, including Carlos’ younger sibling, who was hospitalized herself and still has ongoing symptoms. The aggressive reopening of the country was a shattering witness for them.

“It’s hard for us to let go of our vigilance; it’s going to take a while to get used to,” Bailey said.

The world has seen more than 445 million confirmed COVID-19 cases, and new weekly cases have recently been falling in every region except the western Pacific, which includes China, Japan and South Korea, among others, the World Health Organization reported this week.

Although the total number of initial outbreaks in the Pacific islands is 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 will likely hit them for at least the next year,” said Katie Greenwood, head of the Red Cross delegation in the Pacific.

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

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 because the capital’s hospital is overwhelmed and many are dying at home, Greenwood said.

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

Global vaccine inequality persists, with just 6.95% of people in low-income countries being fully vaccinated, compared to more than 73% in high-income countries, according to Our World in Data.

It is a good sign that Africa surpassed Europe in the number of daily doses given late last month, but only about 12.5% ​​of its population has received two vaccinations.

The African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is still pushing for more vaccines, although it has been a challenge. Some shipments arrive with no warning to countries’ health systems, others near expiration dates – forcing cans to be destroyed.

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

“This is really tragic because high levels of stress have a very negative effect on natural immunity and increase the risk of infection,” said Anna Boron-Kaczmarska, a Polish infectious disease specialist. “They are under very high stress, afraid 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 records puts the true number closer to 500,000. Still, four weeks of declining infection rates have made health officials optimistic.

In India, where the world has been rocked by images of open-air pyres burning bodies as crematoria flooded, 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 the real toll is in the millions, mostly from the delta variant. Migrants from India’s vast hinterland are now returning to the megacities in search of work, and the streets are packed with traffic. Malls have customers, albeit still masked, while schools and universities are welcoming students after a months-long hiatus.

In the UK, infections have been falling since an Omicron-driven spike in December but remain high. England has now lifted all restrictions, including making masks compulsory and requiring anyone who tests positive to isolate at home.

With approximately 250,000 reported deaths, the lower death toll on the African continent is believed to be due to underreporting and a generally younger and less mobile population.

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

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 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 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 .

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. The global death toll from pandemic now exceeds 6 million for the third year

Dais Johnston

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