The official number of global deaths from COVID-19 passed six million on Monday – confirming that the pandemic, which officially enters its third year this weekend, is far from over.
The achievement, recorded by Johns Hopkins University, is the latest tragic reminder of the dire nature of the pandemic even as people throw away masks, resume travel and reopen businesses around the world.
With death rates continuing to rise in Poland, Hungary, Romania and other eastern European countries, the region has seen the arrival of more than 1.5 million refugees from war-torn Ukraine, a country with poor vaccination coverage and high rates of cases and deaths.
Meanwhile, despite its wealth and availability of vaccines, the United States will have one million reported deaths sometime this spring.
Both the United States and Canada are removing many of the COVID-19 restrictions as the wave of the Omicron coronavirus variant recedes. Canada, which is set to surpass 37,000 coronavirus deaths on Monday, had 5,136 people hospitalized with COVID-19 at the end of February, less than half of the total peak hospitalizations for the Omicron wave, which occurred on January 22.
The real total could be much higher
Globally, the six million deaths likely occurred some time ago. Poor record keeping and testing in many parts of the world has led to a decrease in the number of coronavirus deaths, as well as excess deaths related to the pandemic but not from actual COVID-19 infections, such as people who died of preventable causes but were unable to receive treatment because hospitals were full.
When countries’ excess death numbers are studied, nearly four times the number of deaths reported from the pandemic are likely to die, said Edward Mathieu, head of data at Our World in Data Gateway.
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An analysis of excess deaths by a team at The Economist estimates the number of COVID-19 deaths to be between 14.1 million and 23.8 million.
“Confirmed deaths are a fraction of the true number of deaths from COVID, mostly due to limited testing and challenges in determining the cause of death,” Matteo told The Associated Press. “In some countries, mostly rich, this portion is high and the official tally can be considered fairly accurate, but in others it is greatly underestimated.”
Mexico has reported 300,000 deaths, but with so few testing, a government analysis of death certificates brings the true number closer to 500,000.
In India, where the world has been shocked by images of open-air crematoriums of cremated bodies while crematoria were overcrowded, scars are fading as the number of new cases and deaths slows. India has recorded more than 500,000 deaths, but experts believe the true death toll is in the millions, mainly from the delta variable.
With around 250,000 deaths reported, the smaller death toll on the African continent is believed to be caused by underreporting, as well as by a younger and less mobile population.
“Africa is a big question mark for me, because it has been relatively spared the worst of it so far, but it may just be a ticking time bomb,” said Tiki Bang, visiting professor at the National University of Singapore’s School of Medicine, and colleagues. Chair of the Asia Pacific Immunization Alliance, noting low vaccination rates.
The African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is still pushing for more vaccines, although it has been a challenge. Some shipments arrive with little warning to countries’ health systems and others close to the expiration date – spoiling the doses.
In a good indication, at the end of last month Africa overtook Europe in the number of doses taken per day, but only about 12.5 percent of its population received two doses.
Global vaccine disparity persists, with only 6.95 percent of people in low-income countries fully vaccinated, compared to more than 73 percent in high-income countries, according to Our World in Data.
See the Pacific Islands omicron wave
Pang said worldwide death rates are still higher among people who are not immunized against the virus.
“This is an unvaccinated disease – look what’s happening in Hong Kong right now, the health system is overwhelmed,” said Pang, a former director of research policy and cooperation with the World Health Organization. “The vast majority of deaths and severe cases have been in an unvaccinated and vulnerable segment of the population.”
The world has seen more than 445 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, and new weekly cases have recently been declining in all regions except the Western Pacific, which includes China, Japan and South Korea, among others. Hong Kong, which is on the rise in deaths, is testing all of its 7.5 million residents three times this month as it sticks to mainland China’s “zero COVID” strategy.
The remote Pacific islands, which have provided their isolation for more than two years, are now struggling with their first outbreaks and deaths.
“Given what we know about COVID … it’s likely to hit them at least the next year or so,” said Katie Greenwood, head of the Pacific Red Cross delegation.
Tonga reported the first outbreak of the virus after the virus arrived by international relief ships following the eruption of a massive volcano on January 15. The Solomon Islands also saw the first outbreak of the virus in January, and it now has thousands of cases and more than 100 deaths.
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, a million more people had died, and a million people had died every three months since, until the death toll reached five million at the end of October.
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