BANGKOK: The official global death toll from Covid-19 is on the verge of eclipsing six million, underscoring that the pandemic, now in its third year, is far from over.
The milestone is the latest tragic reminder of the unrelenting nature of the pandemic even as people are shedding masks, travel is resuming and businesses are reopening around the globe.
The death toll, compiled by Johns Hopkins University, stood at 5,996,882 as of Sunday morning and was expected to pass the 6m mark soon.
Remote Pacific islands, whose isolation had protected them for more than two years, are just now grappling with their first outbreaks and deaths, fuelled by the highly contagious omicron variant.
Hong Kong, which is seeing deaths soar, is testing its entire population of 7.5m 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 1m refugees arrive from war-torn Ukraine, a country with poor vaccination coverage and high rates of cases and deaths.
And despite its wealth and vaccine availability, the United States is nearing 1m reported deaths on its own.
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 Immunisation 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 Organisation.
The large majority of the deaths and the 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 1m have died every three months since, until the death toll hit 5m at the end of October.
Now it has reached 6m, more than the populations of Berlin and Brussels combined, or the entire state of Maryland.
But despite the enormity of the official figure, the world undoubtedly hit its six-millionth death some time ago. Poor record-keeping and testing in many parts of the world has led to an undercount in coronavirus deaths, in addition to excess deaths related to the pandemic but not from actual Covid-19 infections, like people who died from preventable causes but could not receive treatment because hospitals were full.
An analysis of excess deaths by a team at The Economist estimates that the number of Covid-19 deaths is between 14m and 23.5m.
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.
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 has the biggest official death toll in the world, but the numbers have been trending downward over the last month.
Published in Dawn, March 7th, 2022