Global coronavirus deaths surpassed 3 million on Saturday, according to the latest data from Johns Hopkins University. That means more people have died of the coronavirus than inhabit Lisbon, Portugal or Chicago, Illinois.
More than a third of those deaths occurred in just three counties: the US, Brazil, and India.
The US represents by far the majority of the world’s coronavirus deaths, due in large part to a devastating winter surge. More than 566,000 people in the US have died of the coronavirus thus far — nearly 20% of the global total.
Brazil has reported nearly 370,000 total coronavirus deaths, while India has reported around 175,000.
“This is not the situation we want to be in 16 months into a pandemic where we have proven control measures,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization’s technical lead for COVID-19, said earlier this week. “It is time right now where everyone has to take stock and have a reality check about what we need to be doing.”
The world hit a similarly sobering milestone in January, when coronavirus deaths topped 2 million. Coronavirus deaths topped 1 million in September.
But the landscape of the pandemic is different now: Countries are in a race to get shots into arms as quickly as possible as they battle more contagious variants that, in some cases, can evade protection from vaccines.
The available vaccine supply is still scarce in many parts of the world: COVAX, the UN-sponsored program to ensure equal distribution of coronavirus vaccines, has only delivered enough doses for roughly 0.25% of the world’s population. In low-income countries, just 1 in more than 500 people have received their shots, compared with 1 in 4 people in high-income countries, according to the WHO.
In India and Brazil in particular, slow vaccine rollouts, a lack of social distancing, and the spread of variants has pushed hospitals into crisis mode yet again.
Large gatherings abound in India as deaths climb
India has immunized less than 8% of its population since its national vaccine program started exactly three months ago. During that time, average new daily coronavirus deaths have increased more than four-fold, from around 180 per day to more than 1,000 per day. Local media outlets have reported long lines at hospitals, ventilator shortages, and bodies piling up at crematoriums.
“Earlier 15 to 20 bodies were coming in a day and now around 80 to 100 dead bodies are coming daily,” Kamlesh Sailor, the president of a trust operating a crematorium in Surat, told Bloomberg earlier this week.
At the same time, local residents have gathered for large events that could fuel the virus’ spread, including election rallies, festivals, and religious pilgrimages. At least 50 million Hindus crowded along the Ganga river earlier this week for a religious festival that has now been linked to at least 2,000 coronavirus cases.
Like many countries, India is also dealing with its own local variants: Scientists from the Indian state of Maharashtra identified a new strain in March that’s linked to between 15% and 20% of cases there.
A ‘raging inferno of an outbreak’ in Brazil
Brazil’s average daily coronavirus deaths have also doubled in the last three months, from around 950 per day to more than 2,800 per day. Overwhelmed hospitals are now running low on supplemental oxygen and sedatives.
“What you are dealing with here is a raging inferno of an outbreak,” Bruce Aylward, senior adviser to the WHO director general, said at a press briefing on April 9.
In December, Brazil become a hotspot for P.1, a more contagious variant that seems to partially evade immunity from vaccines or previous infectious.
A March study suggested that P.1 was 40% to 120% more transmissible than earlier versions of the virus. Researchers from Brazil’s leading public-health body, Fiocruz, warned last Wednesday that the variant is mutating in “particularly worrying” ways that could make it more resistant to vaccines.
Meanwhile, just 12% of Brazil’s population has been vaccinated so far.
Brazil rejected an offer to purchase 70 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine in August, instead betting on AstraZeneca’s shot to drive its vaccine rollout. With doses from the nation’s two biggest laboratories now in short supply, Brazil is relying on backup doses of China’s Sinovac shot.
“The big problem is that Brazil did not look for alternatives when it had the chance,” Claudio Maierovitch, former head of Brazil’s health regulator, told the Associated Press. “When several countries were placing their bets, signing contracts with different suppliers, the Brazilian government didn’t even have vaccination on its agenda.”
Language from Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has also fueled vaccine skepticism. Bolsonaro previously joked that the Pfizer shot could “turn you into an alligator.”
Over the course of the pandemic, Bolsonaro has also questioned the effectiveness of masks, rebuffed calls for lockdowns, and suggested that the virus is no more than a “little flu.”