Four million people worldwide have now died from COVID-19, the World Health Organization announced Wednesday.
Sixteen months into the pandemic, its effects are being felt in drastically different ways based on which countries have purchased access to the coronavirus vaccines and which have been left waiting. In the United States — the former epicenter of the crisis and the nation that still has the highest toll of coronavirus deaths at over 600,000 — life has largely returned to normal. Meanwhile, cases are surging in Indonesia, where just 5 percent of the country’s 270 million people are vaccinated. Over 1,000 Indonesians died Wednesday, a rate not seen in the United States since March.
In a press conference announcing the milestone, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus condemned wealthy countries for vaccine hoarding. “Vaccine nationalism, where a handful of nations have taken the lion’s share, is morally indefensible and an ineffective public-health strategy against a respiratory virus that is mutating quickly and becoming increasingly effective at moving from human-to-human,” he said. “At this stage in the pandemic, the fact that millions of health and care workers have still not been vaccinated is abhorrent.”
Tedros also noted that the 4 million count “likely underestimates the overall toll.” According to one analysis by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation released in May, as many as 6.9 million people had died from the virus worldwide up until that point, with over 900,000 victims in the United States. The institute’s director, Christopher Murray, noted that many countries underreported due to low levels of testing and health systems being overwhelmed, while others, like Russia and Egypt, appear to have intentionally undercounted.
Throughout the world, the highly transmissible Delta variant has public-health officials on edge as they try to dampen local outbreaks and encourage citizens to get vaccinated in places shots are available. The strain, first found in India, has been detected in at least 98 countries and is estimated to be 40 to 60 percent more contagious than the Alpha (U.K./B.1.1.7) variant. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that the strain makes up over half of new COVID infections. In Japan, its rise amid a larger surge resulted in public-health officials declaring a state of emergency just weeks before the Olympics begin — along with all the international travel the games entail.