COVID-19 Death Toll Nears 6 Million as Pandemic Enters Its Third Year
BANGKOK — The official global death toll from COVID-19 is on the verge of eclipsing 6 million — underscoring that the pandemic, now in its third year, is far from over.
As people shed masks, travel resumes and businesses reopen around the world, this milestone serves as a tragic reminder of how the pandemic continues. Johns Hopkins University had compiled the death count at 5,996,882 on Sunday morning. It was predicted that it would surpass 6 million by later in the day.
These remote islands in the Pacific that had been isolated for two years are now facing their first deaths and outbreaks, caused by the contagious variant of omicron.
Hong Kong, which is seeing deaths soar, is testing its entire population of 7.5 million three times this month as it clings to mainland China’s “zero-COVID” strategy.
The death rate in Poland, Hungary and Romania is still high. This region saw more than 1,000,000 refugees flee war-torn Ukraine. A country that has poor vaccination coverage, high cases of deaths, and low rates of vaccines, it also had a high number of people who died.
Even with its abundance and availability of vaccines, America is close to 1 million deaths.
Death rates worldwide are still highest among people unvaccinated against the virus, said Tikki Pang, a visiting professor at the National University of Singapore’s medical school and co-Chair of the Asia Pacific Immunization Coalition.
“This is a disease of the unvaccinated — look what is happening in Hong Kong right now, the health system is being overwhelmed,” said Pang, the former director of research policy and cooperation with the World Health Organization. “The large majority of the deaths and the severe cases are in the unvaccinated, vulnerable segment of the population.”
After the outbreak in the early 2020s, the first million people to die from the virus took 7 months. Another million had already died four months later, with 1,000,000 dying every three months until October, when the death toll reached 5 million. Now it has reached 6 million — more than the populations of Berlin and Brussels combined, or the entire state of Maryland.
However, this figure is still staggering. Bad record keeping and poor testing have led to an undercounting of coronavirus-related deaths in some parts.
Edouard Mathieu, head of data for the Our World in Data portal, said that — when countries’ excess mortality figures are studied — as many as nearly four times the reported death toll have likely died because of the pandemic.
A team from The Economist has done an analysis on excess deaths and found that there are between 14 million to 23.5 million COVID-19-related deaths.
“Confirmed deaths represent a fraction of the true number of deaths due to COVID, mostly because of limited testing, and challenges in the attribution of the cause of death,” Mathieu told The Associated Press. “In some, mostly rich, countries that fraction is high and the official tally can be considered to be fairly accurate, but in others it is highly underestimated.”
The United States holds the record for death by suicide, with an average of 2.6 deaths per 100,000 people. However, these numbers are trending down 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 his age group to vaccinations. The Louisville resident said the family is still suffering, including Carlos’ younger sibling, who had to be hospitalized himself and still has lingering symptoms. Witnessing the nation’s aggressive opening has been an eye-opener for their family.
“For us it is hard to let our guard down; it’s going to take a while for us to adjust,” Bailey said.
There have been more than 445,000,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the world, with new cases declining weekly in every region except the Western Pacific. This includes South Korea, Japan, China and Japan, according to the World Health Organization.
Although numbers in the Pacific Islands experiencing their first epidemics are not as high as those of larger nations, these figures are still significant for their small populations. They could also threaten fragile health care systems.
“Given what we know about COVID … it’s likely to hit them for the next year or so at least,” said Katie Greenwood, head of the Red Cross Pacific delegation.
Tonga had its first reported outbreak following an international assistance vessel’s arrival with the virus. This was after the January 15th eruption of a large volcano followed by tsunami. It now has several hundred cases, but — with 66% of its population fully vaccinated — it has so far reported people suffering mostly mild symptoms and no deaths.
In January, the Solomon Islands was hit with its first epidemic. There are now thousands of victims and over 100 dead. The actual death toll is likely much higher, with the capital’s hospital overwhelmed and many dying at home, Greenwood said.
Only 12% of Solomon Islanders are fully vaccinated, though the outbreak has provided new impetus to the country’s vaccination campaign and 29% now have at least one shot.
According to Our World in Data, global vaccine inequalities persist. Only 6.95% are fully vaccinated in low-income countries, while 73% live in high-income countries.
It is encouraging that Africa has surpassed Europe in daily doses at the end last month, although only 12.5% have received more than two shots.
Although this has proven difficult, Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (ACCP) is insisting on more vaccines. Some shipments arrive with little warning for countries’ health systems and others near the expiration date — forcing doses to be destroyed.
Eastern Europe has been especially hard hit by this omicron variant. And with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, an additional risk emerged when hundreds of thousands fled to Poland in crowded trains. They have offered free vaccines to refugees but not made them undergo quarantine or testing upon their arrival.
“This is 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 in very high stress, being afraid for their lives, the lives of their children, they family members.”
Mexico had reported over 300,000. But, with very little testing, an analysis by the government of death certificates shows that the true number is close to 500,000. Health officials are still optimistic despite four weeks of declining infection rates.
The scars left in India after the shocking images showing open-air pyres of crematoria bodies being burned, are slowly fading.
India has witnessed more than 500,000 deaths. However, experts estimate that the real number of victims is many thousands, most likely from the delta variety. Migrants from India’s vast hinterland are now returning to its megacities in search of jobs, and the streets are packed with traffic. Shopping centers have shoppers, even if they are still hidden, and schools and universities welcome students back after months of waiting.
Although infections in Britain have declined since December’s omicron-driven spike, they remain high. England has lifted all restrictions including mask mandates, and required that everyone who tests positive for infection at home be tested.
With about 250,000 reported deaths, the African continent’s smaller death toll is thought to stem from underreporting, as well as 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 its 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 has been difficult, but “the family is coping,” she said. “We have accepted it because it has been happening to other families.”
Jill Lawless (London), Aniruddha Gahosal (New Delhi), Cara Anna in Nairobi and Mogomotsi Moomes in Johannesburg, Monika Scieslowska in Warsaw, Fabiola Hernandez in Mexico City, Heather Hollingsworth (Mission, Kansas) contributed to this article.