Virus death toll reaches 500,000 worldwide

“A terrifying sequel”: Reported infections in the US have now passed 2.5 million.

Will we prevent a second wave? Britain is on a “knife edge”, warns a government adviser this morning. And US test sites were overwhelmed, yesterday, as global infections passed 10 million.

As excess deaths fell, restrictions eased and life switched back to normal, many in the West assumed the worst was over. How mistaken is this? And what is really going on?

The facts are grim. The global death total passed 500,000 yesterday, while the number of confirmed cases passed 10 million. These records were hit as countries around the world struggle to keep new infections from reaching runaway levels, while simultaneously trying to emerge from painful lockdowns.

In April, a month after the World Health Organisation declared the outbreak a pandemic, deaths topped 100,000. In early May, the figure climbed to 250,000. Now, it has doubled in less than two months. More than a quarter of all known deaths have been in the United States.

Data released by the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention shows that the actual figures are probably 10 ten times as high as reported. The spike has led officials in Texas, Florida, and other states to tighten restrictions on business again, with warnings that hospitals may soon be overwhelmed.

In the UK, government adviser Jeremy Farrar warns that “we’re on a knife edge” and risk seeing “a very nasty rebound”. The government admits that it is considering a localised lockdown in response to an upsurge in Leicester.

Here is a brief overview.

The big picture. Analysis by Bloomberg highlights that, while it took four months for the virus to reach a million cases, an extra million people are now being infected each week. Although the peak appears to have passed in Western Europe, Covid-19 is now tearing through the rest of the world. Latin America is being particularly badly hit. South Asia and Africa are yet to fully experience the first wave.

The best-performing countries. According to the Financial Times, which tracks all excess deaths during the last few months, several countries have seen no unusual spike whatsoever. These include Iceland, Israel, Norway, and South Africa. Research from the University of Oxford suggests that badly-hit European countries Italy, Spain, and Belgium appear to be recovering well, despite now lifting restrictions.

The worst-performing countries. The USA has recorded the most cases and the most deaths, at over 2.5 million and 125,000 respectively. The Washington Post described this as a “historic failure”. The UK, with over 45,000 dead, has the highest fatality rate per 100,000 people in the world. According to that measure, the US comes second, followed by Peru, Chile, Brazil, Mexico, and Ecuador.

Second spikes. After slowing down for several months, cases in the US are now surging again. Several states, including Florida and Texas are now closing bars and restaurants once more. The New York Times described it as “a terrifying sequel”. Second waves have also hit better prepared countries. In Beijing, a new outbreak centred around an agricultural market. In Seoul, a nightclub was the new epicentre. In Germany, the coronavirus spread around a meat processing plant, infecting 1,500 people.

So, will we prevent a second wave?

Groundhog virus

No. At least not without going back to harsh lockdowns and closing borders. Governments that are already unpopular for mistakes made during their first lockdowns are trying to win back support by kick-starting their economies. Voters are fed up and rebellious. It is unlikely that governments will have the courage to go back to phase one again.

Yes. There are nations that have become good models for the rest of the world. Increasingly, we will be forced to follow their example. Some of the countries suffering second spikes, like Germany, South Korea, Singapore, and Australia, are able to notice small local changes in the data and respond swiftly. This seems to work.

You Decide

  1. Are people being too quick to assume the worst is over?
  2. Should we expect a second wave as bad as the first one?

Activities

  1. Research the growth of infections and deaths in your country. Make a simple graph showing both sets of data since 1 January this year.
  2. It is the year 2050. The virus still exists in some parts of the world. Write a short story imagining how life might be.

Some People Say...

“You may have a second peak within your first wave, and then you may have a second wave: it’s not either or.”

Mike Ryan, emergencies director of the World Health Organisation

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Cities in badly affected countries have suffered huge numbers of excess deaths. For instance, Guayas in Ecuador, Lima in Peru, and New York City have all had three times more fatalities than usual during the pandemic (+200%). According to the University of Oxford, almost half of the severely hit countries to have lifted lockdown are now seeing a rise in new cases.
What do we not know?
How the virus works. We do not know how long immunity lasts after infection or why some people get so much sicker than others. Strict lockdowns might not be the only option. Sweden looked to keep much of society open, but trains people to observe distancing guidelines. One Harvard epidemiologist suggests that this approach may be sustainable in ways others have not proven to be.

Word Watch

Excess deaths
A measure of the impact of the virus where not every case will have tested positive. Excess deaths represent the number of people to have died on top of the average number for that time of year.
Rebound
To recover after a decrease or fall.
Localised
Focused on a single location and limited in area. With reference to lockdowns, this represents the idea that a country can stop the spread of the disease without stopping the entire nation or economy.
Epicentre
The heart of an outbreak; the place from which a new infection might spread. The word is also used in seismology (the study of earthquakes).

Subjects

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