With India in the grip of a catastrophic outbreak, the World Health Organization is warning against any nation letting its guard down.
(CN) — As India suffers a catastrophic wave of coronavirus infections and deaths, the World Health Organization on Friday highlighted South America’s persistently terrible situation as evidence that the pandemic has entered a new horrible phase.
The past week has seen the world register a record number of new infections and a steady rise in deaths caused by Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus rampaging around the world.
Since April 23, more than 5.8 million new infections were reported around the world with India’s staggering outbreak accounting for many of the new cases. Since the pandemic started, more than 151 million infections have been detected, though the number of infected people is undoubtedly much higher because many cases go undetected or unreported.
Since April 21, India has detected more than 300,000 new infections every day with a new record reached Thursday, when nearly 387,000 cases were reported, according to data tracked by Worldometer.
Globally, deaths are steadily rising too with 93,821 new deaths reported in the past week, according to figures collected by Johns Hopkins University. Only the worst days in January saw more people die in a single week from the pandemic. The global death toll stands at 3.18 million.
India’s catastrophic situation is serving as a dire warning to the rest of the world about the dangers from the virus. Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party’s leadership are being blamed for plunging India into this crisis by failing to impose strict lockdowns, suggesting India had achieved herd immunity after a first wave of infection last autumn and neglecting to stock up on oxygen supplies, medicines and intensive care units.
This week, the world was awash in images of Indians sobbing for the loss of loved ones, patients languishing without oxygen, overcrowded hospitals and funeral pyres burning the dead. In the past week, India recorded 21,385 pandemic-related deaths. Its death toll now stands at more than 208,000, the fourth highest in the world.
The catastrophe prompted the United States and European nations to provide urgent medical needs. China, a regional rival, offered its help on Friday.
“In the last couple of weeks, much of the world’s attention has focused on India and although that country remains in the grip of a severe crisis, we’re encouraged by the demonstration of international support for India,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, during a news briefing at the agency’s Geneva headquarters on Friday. “The pandemic has taught us that no country can ever let down its guard.”
He didn’t point to any examples of this, but the U.S. has begun to ease restrictions along with the United Kingdom after successful vaccination campaigns in both countries. Some European nations too are beginning to ease restrictions in advance of the summer holiday season and as vaccinations ramp up.
The European Union has fallen behind the U.K. and U.S. in vaccinations, but the pace is picking up. About 27% of Europeans have received at least one vaccine dose and 10% have been fully vaccinated with two doses, according to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. By comparison, about 50% of Brits have received at least one dose and about 20% have been fully vaccinated, according to figures from Our World in Data.
Deaths and infections remain high across Europe, though they are declining. Across Europe, more than 3,000 deaths are reported each day with Poland recording the most – 429 on Friday, 541 on Thursday and 635 on Wednesday.
At Friday’s news briefing, the WHO focused on the ongoing tragedy in Brazil and South America.
The Americas has been the region hit the hardest by the pandemic. The U.S. death toll is the highest in the world at nearly 590,000, but with a successful vaccination drive deaths and new infections in the U.S. have fallen and leveled off.
But wide-scale vaccination is still far off in South America and that leaves its populations vulnerable for potentially many months. About 6% of Brazilians have been fully vaccinated, but in Colombia that number drops to about 3% and 2% in Argentina. Brazil’s death toll stands at more than 401,000, the second highest in the world. As a whole, South America has reported more than 668,500 deaths and North America nearly 861,000.
Tedros said Brazil’s situation is improving but remains dire and that Brazil, like other South American nations, has reported an increase in younger people needing hospitalization. Scientists believe a strain of the virus that emerged in Brazil’s Amazon region is both more contagious and more deadly.
“During April, intensive care units have been at almost full capacity across the country,” he said. “Cases have now declined for four weeks in a row and hospitalizations and deaths are also declining. This is good news and we hope this trend continues.”
Dr. Marcelo Queiroga, Brazil’s new health minister, spoke at the news briefing via video link from Brazil about his country’s efforts to bring the outbreak under control. Queiroga, a cardiologist, is the fourth health minister appointed by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro since the start of the pandemic. Bolsonaro, like Modi and former U.S. President Donald Trump, is blamed for causing his country’s health crisis by refusing to impose lockdowns and take the virus seriously.
Queiroga said Brazil was stepping up its domestic production of vaccines and speeding up immunization. He said that 1.7 million Brazilians were recently vaccinated in one day.
“Nonetheless, we have a long way to go because we need to be able to vaccinate 2.4 million people every day,” he said, speaking through a translator. About 213 million people live in Brazil.
In addition, he said Brazil was now giving “clear and objective” guidance on non-medical measures to fight the virus, such as frequent hand-washing, wearing masks and avoiding physical contact. Bolsonaro was criticized for not wearing a mask in the early days of the pandemic, holding political rallies and equating the coronavirus to a “little flu.”
He said Brazil is distributing about 60 million vaccine doses and has administered about 41 million doses.
“We would like to call on those countries with extra doses of vaccines to share them with Brazil as soon as possible so that we can also broaden our vaccination campaign, so we can contain the pandemic at this critical time and avoid the proliferation of new variants,” the health minister said.
Dr. Ciro Ugarte, the head of the WHO’s Americas region, warned that most South American nations are “reporting a dramatic rise in infections and their health services are overwhelmed.”
“The Covid-19 pandemic has become more complex, not only in Brazil, but in all South America,” he said. “Infections in Colombia will soon reach the high levels that they had in January and intensive care unit beds are running out in major metropolitan cities like Bogota and Medellin.”
He said a shortage of vaccines worldwide means that the “outlook is not optimistic for increased supplies soon.”
“At this stage of the pandemic, the panorama is very concerning for Latin America and the Caribbean,” Ugarte said. “Our countries are engaging multiple battlefronts: they face challenges in getting enough vaccines to immunize large percentages of the population, and the countries also are operating in the context of a huge economic crisis that has increased poverty.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.