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Covid-19 Deaths This Year Have Already Eclipsed 2020’s Toll

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As wealthy nations vaccinate, growing death tally underscores worsening divide between rich and poor countries

More people have died from Covid-19 already this year than in all of 2020, according to official counts, highlighting how the global pandemic is far from over even as vaccines beat back the virus in wealthy nations.

It took less than six months for the globe to record more than 1.88 million Covid-19 deaths this year, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of data collected by Johns Hopkins University. The university’s count for 2021 edged just ahead of the 2020 death toll on Thursday.

These numbers underscore how unevenly the pandemic spread around the globe, often hitting poorer nations later, but before they had access to the vaccines that have benefited Europe and the U.S. That pattern has led to a worsening divide between developed and developing nations as President Biden and the leaders of the other Group of Seven advanced economies prepare to gather in England to discuss next steps in the pandemic response.

While Western nations such as the U.S., Canada and the U.K. celebrate low caseloads and declining deaths thanks to mass vaccinations, the intensified pandemic in parts of Asia and Latin America propelled global deaths higher.

“We are living through our worst moment since the start of the pandemic,” Argentine President Alberto Fernández said late last month.

His country is facing its longest and most severe wave, with well over 500 people dying of Covid-19 on average every day. The government has implemented new lockdowns that are among the most stringent in South America, including the closing of commerce and restrictions on drivers, as well as the suspension of classes and religious ceremonies.

The current burden of Covid-19 marks a reversal for rich and poor nations. At the turn of the year, Europe and North America accounted for 73% of daily cases and 72% of daily deaths as the virus roared back during fall and winter. Now, South America, Asia and Africa account for more than 80% of daily cases and three-quarters of daily deaths, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of figures compiled by the University of Oxford’s Our World in Data project.

The numbers collected by Johns Hopkins reflect official counts of Covid-19 deaths from nations around the world, adding up to a global tally that recently topped 3.7 million. Patchy recording of Covid-19 cases and deaths means the true toll is likely substantially higher, disease experts say.

The good news is the globe’s seven-day average for officially reported new deaths has been trending lower in recent weeks. The average is also still at historically high levels, only recently slipping back below 10,000 deaths a day, which is a level not reached until late last year. For about two weeks starting in late January, nations around the world averaged more than 14,000 deaths a day.

A mass cremation of Covid-19 victims in New Delhi in late April. Photo: Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto/Zuma Press

Vastly different vaccination rates have sharpened the global divide. Only 2% of people in Africa and just over 6% in Asia have received at least one dose of vaccine, according to Our World in Data. That compares with 22% in South America, more than 40% in the European Union and more than half in the U.S. 

Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, has yet to administer a single vaccine, according to the World Health Organization.

World leaders are due to discuss their response to the pandemic when they gather in Cornwall, in southwestern England, on Friday. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called on major economies to commit to vaccinating the whole world by the end of next year, but the U.S. and Europe appear split over how best to extend vaccine coverage world-wide.

The EU is resisting a U.S.-backed proposal to waive intellectual property rights on Covid-19 vaccines to boost production, suggesting instead that countries subsidize vaccine manufacturing directly and ease restrictions on exports.

President Biden’s administration said it would donate 500 million coronavirus vaccine doses produced by Pfizer Inc. to the rest of the world, including 200 million by the end of this year. All of those doses will be donated through Covax, the global initiative to help vaccinate developing countries, and are earmarked for 92 lower-income countries and the African Union.

Pfizer and German partner BioNTech SE said 200 million doses would go to other countries this year and 300 million in the first half of next year.

Behind this year’s surge in Covid-19 deaths is a worsening toll in South America and a spiraling epidemic in Asia, especially India. Fueling those outbreaks are new variants of the virus that scientists believe are more transmissible than older strains.

In South America, Peru, the country with the world’s highest per capita death rate, recently announced a revised tally showing more than 94,000 deaths so far this year, surpassing the 93,000 deaths in 2020. Brazil’s average daily death toll topped 3,100 in mid-April this year, equivalent to 130 deaths per hour and nearly triple the peak rate seen last year. Almost 60% of the nation’s roughly 480,000 Covid-19 deaths have come this year.

A cemetery where Covid-19 victims are buried in Manaus, Brazil. Photo: bruno kelly/Reuters

A major culprit is an aggressive version of Covid-19 that spread south from the Amazon to the country’s major cities, Johns Hopkins data shows. The resulting case surge overwhelmed local hospitals, meaning that many severely ill patients died after failing to receive adequate medical care. This more contagious variant, known as Gamma, has also become a major scourge throughout South America.

Colombia has logged more than 50,000 Covid-19 deaths this year, up from 43,200 last year. The increase in pandemic deaths are compounding a volatile political situation, with antigovernment protests over unemployment and rising poverty slowing vaccine efforts in some regions. Only about 6.8% of the population is fully vaccinated, Colombian health data shows, and intensive-care units in several cities are filled to capacity for the first time since the pandemic hit.

In India, rapidly spreading variants such as Alpha, the variant first identified in the U.K. last year, and Delta, first identified in India late last year, are behind an epidemic that has sickened almost 30 million people and claimed more than 359,500 lives, according to Johns Hopkins. Doctors worry the Delta variant in particular is proving more virulent, hitting younger patients harder than in previous waves of infection.

The scale of the outbreak in India swamped the country’s health service, leaving hospitals without beds and patients desperate for oxygen. Millions of vaccine doses destined for export were kept at home for a domestic vaccination drive. Some states have started easing public-health restrictions after caseloads recently began to fall. India’s government has pledged to offer free vaccinations to all adults starting June 21.

A funeral for a Covid-19 victim in Peru, which has the world’s highest per capita death rate. Photo: ernesto benavides/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

This year has also hit some Asian nations that appeared to avoid a significant impact in 2020. Japan has seen significantly more deaths this year than last, data show. Though Thailand has reported about 1,300 deaths overall, nearly all of them are this year, data show.

In Africa, Covid-19 cases have begun surging in recent weeks in countries including South Africa, Uganda and Namibia, raising the prospect of another jump in deaths.

Data on Covid-19 deaths are patchy in most African countries due to limited testing and many people avoiding treatment in hospitals even for severe cases. Almost 68,000 Covid-19 deaths have been captured in official tallies in Africa this year, compared with around 65,000 in 2020.

Aided by its vaccine campaign, the U.S. recently saw its daily deaths average fall to the lowest level since the pandemic’s early days, and about 59% of the nation’s nearly 600,000 known Covid-19 deaths occurred last year. In the U.K., which also saw more deaths last year, the daily toll has plunged to single digits, compared with an average that peaked above 1,200 in January.

Yet even in rich countries, the battle against the virus isn’t over. The U.K., for instance, is tracking rapidly growing clusters of infections associated with the Delta variant, highlighting how the virus can continue to find ways to find susceptible hosts even within a highly vaccinated population.

A funeral for a Covid-19 victim in San Felipe, Texas, in January. Photo: callaghan o’hare/Reuters

The variant’s advance has put the U.K.’s plan to abandon all public-health restrictions later this month into doubt, as scientists and officials await more evidence about whether vaccines are keeping enough of a lid on hospitalizations and deaths. Hospital admissions have in some areas begun to creep up, but deaths so far remain low.

The Delta variant has also alarmed authorities in the U.S. All nations remain at risk while rampant outbreaks increase the opportunities for more-dangerous mutations, health experts say.

“The strategy is pretty simple: Everybody in the world has to get a vaccine,” said Prabhat Jha, an epidemiologist who directs the Centre for Global Health Research, a nonprofit sponsored by the University of Toronto and St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.

Epidemiologists believe these numbers represent only a portion of the pandemic’s true toll, due in part to missed Covid-19 deaths and collateral damage from issues like healthcare disruptions. In the U.S., for example, experts believe limited test availability hampered the ability to correctly identify many Covid-19 deaths early in the pandemic.

This was likely true in many nations, said Dr. Jha, which may mean there was a significant number of missed Covid-19 deaths last year. On the other hand, the intensity of the pandemic in India likely caused a surge in missed deaths this year, he said.

“In India I have no doubt that the real total may be double” the official number, Dr. Jha said

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