In Depth

World reacts to one million Covid deaths as WHO warns ‘not impossible’ virus could kill a million more

Sombre milestone punctuates extraordinary year - with experts suggesting a vaccine is still a long way off

The global coronavirus death toll has passed one million in a bleak milestone that has prompted sombre reflection on an extraordinary year.

The worldwide tally of deaths from the coronavirus now amounts to double the number of people who die annually from malaria, and surpassed one million on Monday according to the latest data.

Covid-19 has now killed “four times as many people who died in the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, 16 times as many people killed by the common flu in the US last winter, and more than 335 times the number of people who perished in the 9/11 attacks”, CNN says.

The grim figure came as Mike Ryan, the executive director of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Health Emergencies Programme, told reporters that this figure could double without international action.

“It’s certainly unimaginable,” Ryan said of the prospect of two million deaths. “But it’s not impossible, because if we look at losing a million people in nine months and then we just look at the realities of getting a vaccine out there in the next nine months, it’s a big task for everyone involved.”

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described the tally of one million death as a “mind-numbing” and “agonizing milestone” in a statement.  

Despite scale of the death toll being “inevitable”, its “arrival is still breathtaking”, The Guardian says. “The figure can only hint at the immeasurable grief of the friends, partners, parents and children of those who have died, many isolated in hospital wards, and buried or cremated without traditional funerals,” the paper continues.

“In a year defined by loss, these one million people and their loved ones have lost the most,” it adds.

Noting that the virus has “forced trade-offs between safety and economic well-being”, the South China Morning Post says decision taken to control its spread “have left millions of people vulnerable, especially the poor, minorities and the elderly”. 

Adding that it “rivals some of the gravest threats to public health, past and present”, the paper notes that the death toll is now “greater than the population of Jerusalem or Austin, Texas”.

Sanjaya Senanayake, associate professor of infectious diseases at the Australian National University, told Al Jazeera that the response to Covid has triggered “protests and anger about government policies with regards to lockdowns and wearing masks”.

This is echoed by The Times of India, which highlights how efforts to stem the virus have prompted global “protests and anger... as businesses worry about their survival and individuals grow frustrated about their jobs and families”.

“The pandemic has ravaged the world's economy, inflamed geopolitical tensions and upended lives, from Indian slums and Brazil’s jungles to America’s biggest city New York”, the paper says.

The WHO declared the coronavirus a pandemic just 202 days ago and “European nations have not been spared by the coronavirus surges and were long considered the pandemic's epicentre”, EuroNews reports. 

Four European states are among the top ten of worst-hit countries with the UK topping the European table (42,001), followed by Italy (35,851), France (31,808) and Spain (31,411). 

Peru, where more than 30,000 have died, is thought to have the highest mortality rate per population, with more than 98 deaths per 100,000 people. The US, Brazil and India make up almost half of the global death toll.

Striking a more optimistic tone, Senanayake told Al Jazzera that “if you look at the success stories - places like Vietnam which in its first wave only had about 300 cases and zero deaths, South Korea, Thailand and New Zealand - there has been lot of public engagement and cooperation”.

However, experts have also warned that there will be further deaths and disruption. Dr Soumya Swaminathan, chief science officer at the WHO, told CNN “that it could be 2022 before people can begin thinking about returning to ‘pre-Covid’ life”. 

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