Worldwide grief

NEW DELHI (AP) — Joginder Chaudhary was his parents’ greatest pride, raised with the little they earned farming a half-acre plot in central India to become the first doctor from their village.

For the coronavirus, though, he was just one more in a million.

After the virus killed the 27-year-old Chaudhary in late July, his mother wept inconsolably. With her son gone, Premlata Chaudhary said, how could she go on living? Three weeks later, on August 18, the virus took her life, too — yet another number in an unrelenting march toward a woeful milestone.

Now, eight-and-a-half months after an infection doctors had never seen before claimed its first victims in China, the pandemic’s confirmed death toll has eclipsed one million, according to a count by Johns Hopkins University.

That is partly due to the virus’ quickening spread through India, where reported deaths have topped 96,000 and cases are increasing at the fastest rate in the world.

The United States (US), where the virus has killed about 205,000 people, accounts for one out of five deaths worldwide, far more than any other country despite its wealth and medical resources.

A health worker screens people for COVID-19 symptoms at Dharavi, one of Asia’s biggest slums, in Mumbai, India. PHOTOS: AP
People receive COVID-19 tests at a mobile testing centre in Marseille, France
Workers lower a coffin containing the body of a suspected COVID-19 victim into a grave during a burial at the special section of Pondok Ranggon cemetery in Jakarta, Indonesia

“It’s not just a number. It’s human beings. It’s people we love,” said University of Michigan medical history professor Dr Howard Markel who has advised government officials on containing pandemics. On a Thursday morning in February, Markel’s mother, 84, and infirm, was stricken by an illness later diagnosed as COVID-19. She died before midnight.

“It’s our brothers, our sisters. It’s people we know,” Markel said. “And if you don’t have that human factor right in your face, it’s very easy to make it abstract.”

Even at one million — greater than the population of Jerusalem or Austin, Texas, more than four times the number killed in the 2004 earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean — the toll is almost certainly a vast undercount.

Many deaths were probably missed because of insufficient testing and inconsistent reporting, and some suspect concealment by countries like Russia and Brazil. And the number continues to mount. Nearly 5,000 deaths are reported each day on average.

Parts of Europe are getting hit by new outbreaks and experts fear a second wave may await the US.

“I can understand why numbers are losing their power to shock, but I still think it’s really important that we understand how big these numbers really are,” said London-based author of The Pandemic Century: One Hundred Years of Panic, Hysteria and Hubris Mark Honigsbaum.

Few people can testify to those numbers like the Reverend Mario Carminati, a priest in the northern Italian province of Bergamo, which was hit by one of Europe’s first major outbreaks last spring.

When the virus overwhelmed local cemeteries, Carminati opened his church to the dead, lining up 80 coffins in the centre aisle. After an army convoy carted them to a crematory, another 80 arrived. Then 80 more.

“It was something completely unpredictable that arrived like a bolt of lightning in a clear sky and struck our reality,” he said.

Eventually the crisis receded and the world’s attention moved on. But the pandemic’s grasp endures. In August, Carminati buried his nephew, 34-year-old Christian Persico.

“This thing should make us all reflect. The problem is that we think we’re all immortal,” Carminati said.

The virus first appeared late last year in patients hospitalised in the Chinese city of Wuhan. The first death was reported there on January 11.

By the time authorities locked down the city nearly two weeks later, millions of travellers had come and gone. China’s government has come in for criticism that it did not do enough to alert other countries to the threat.

Government leaders in countries such as Germany, South Korea and New Zealand worked effectively to contain it.

Others, like US President Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, dismissed the severity of the threat and the guidance of scientists, even as hospitals filled with gravely ill patients.

Oil platform worker Oscar Ortiz who works for Mexico’s state-owned Petroleos Mexicanos said he felt helpless while ill and quarantined this spring, as 14 of his co-workers died from the virus, three in a single week.

“It’s very painful to see this and not be able to do anything,” said Ortiz, whose company has reported over 300 deaths in its ranks.

The virus has forced trade-offs between safety and economic well-being. The choices made have left millions of people vulnerable, especially the poor, minorities and the elderly.

India, whose government relaxed tight restrictions in recent months to jump-start an economy where many subsist on earnings from day labour, is the latest example.

“When the pandemic actually started to get under control to some extent, the lockdown was eased and then completely lifted,” said Public Health Foundation of India President K Srinath Reddy. “The virus had a free passage and could spread much more easily.”

With so many of the deaths beyond view in hospital wards and clustered on society’s margins, the milestone recalls the grim pronouncement often attributed to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin: One death is a tragedy, millions of deaths are a statistic.

The pandemic’s toll of one million dead in such a limited time rivals some of the gravest threats to public health, past and present.

It exceeds annual deaths from AIDS, which last year killed about 690,000 people worldwide. The virus’ toll is approaching the 1.5 million global deaths each year from tuberculosis, which regularly kills more people than any other infectious disease.

But “COVID-19’s grip on humanity is incomparably greater than the grip of other causes of death,” said Georgetown University Professor of Global Health Law Lawrence Gostin. He noted the unemployment, poverty and despair caused by the pandemic, and deaths from myriad other illnesses that have gone untreated.

To put the death toll, alone, in perspective, look to Brazil.

Nearly a decade ago, over 900 Brazilians were killed in flooding that was widely described as the country’s worst-ever single day of natural disaster. From late May to late August, the coronavirus killed more Brazilians than that, on average, day after day.

The victims included Caravaldina Oliveira da Costa, who worked for years as a maid in the beach resort of Armacao dos Buzios. She also stood up for her neighbours in Rasa, a poor community filled with the descendants of escaped slaves, becoming their voice in a fight for land rights.

“She brought something to Rasa that no politician would bring – self-confidence,” said Rejane Oliveira, her niece and disciple.

When the elder Oliveira died in June at 79, Buzios’ mayor decreed three days of mourning. But city hall ruled out holding a ceremony. Because of the virus, officials said, it was not safe to gather.

For all its lethality, the virus has claimed far fewer lives than the so-called Spanish Flu, which killed an estimated 40 million to 50 million worldwide in two years, just over a century ago.

That pandemic came before scientists had microscopes powerful enough to identify the enemy or antibiotics that could treat the bacterial pneumonia that killed most of the victims. In the US, the Spanish Flu killed about 675,000. But most of those deaths did not come until a second wave hit over the winter of 1918-19.

Up to now, the disease has left only a faint footprint on Africa, well shy of early modelling that predicted thousands more deaths.

But cases have recently surged in countries like Britain, Spain, Russia and Israel. In the US, the return of students to college campuses has sparked new outbreaks. With approval and distribution of a vaccine still probably months away and winter approaching in the Northern Hemisphere, the toll will continue to climb.

“We’re only at the beginning of this. We’re going to see many more weeks ahead of this pandemic than we’ve had behind us,” Gostin said.

Already, though, far too many grieve.

“This pandemic has ruined my family,” said Rajendra Chaudhary, who lost his son, the young Indian doctor, and then his wife. “All our aspirations, our dreams, everything is finished.”