AREQUIPA, Peru (AP) – On the last day of Javier Vilca’s life, his wife was standing in front of a hospital window with a teddy bear, red balloons and a box of chocolates to celebrate his birthday, holding up a huge, hand-scribbled sign that read, “Give not on. You are the best man in the world. “
Minutes later, Vilca, a 43-year-old radio journalist struggling with depression, jumped four floors to her death – the fifth suicide by a COVID-19 patient at the overwhelmed Honorio Delgado Hospital in Peru since the pandemic began.
Vilca has become yet another symbol of the desperation caused by coronavirus and the severe and seemingly growing injustices that COVID-19 has inflicted on its way to a global death toll of 4 million, a milestone announced on Wednesday by Johns Hopkins University was recorded.
At the hospital where Vilca died on June 24, a single doctor and three nurses rushed frantically to treat 80 patients in a crowded, makeshift ward while Vilca gasped from an acute shortage of bottled oxygen.
“He promised me that he would make it,” said Nohemí Huanacchire, crying over her husband’s coffin in their half-finished house with no electricity on the outskirts of Arequipa, the second largest city in Peru. “But I never saw him again.”
The number of people who have lost worldwide in the past year and a half is roughly the same as the population of Los Angeles or the nation of Georgia. That is three times as many traffic accident victims worldwide each year. By some estimates, this is roughly the number of people killed in combat in all the world’s wars since 1982.
Even then, it is widely believed that the toll is too low due to overlooked incidents or intentional obfuscation.
More than six months after vaccines became available, reported COVID-19 deaths worldwide have dropped to around 7,900 per day, after peaking at over 18,000 per day in January. The World Health Organization recorded nearly 54,000 deaths last week, the lowest weekly total since last October.
While vaccination campaigns in the US and parts of Europe usher in a period of post-lockdown euphoria and children there are vaccinated so they can go back to summer camp and school, infection rates are still stubbornly high in many parts of South America and Southeast Asia. And many people in Africa are left unprotected because of the acute shortage of vaccines.
The highly contagious Delta variant is also spreading rapidly, triggering an alarm, driving up the number of cases in places and making the crisis increasingly a race between vaccine and mutated version.
The variant has been found in at least 96 countries. Australia, Israel, Malaysia, Hong Kong and other places have reintroduced restrictions in an attempt to suppress them.
The variants, uneven access to vaccines and the relaxation of precautionary measures in some wealthier countries are “a toxic combination that is very dangerous,” warned Ann Lindstrand, a top WHO vaccination officer.
Instead of treating the crisis as a “me-and-me-and-my-country” problem, she said, “we have to get serious that this is a global problem that needs global solutions.”
While the U.S. missed President Joe Biden’s goal of firing at least one shot on 70% of American adults by July 4th, deaths nationwide have fallen sharply from a high of over 3,400 per day in January to around 200 per day .
And the US economy is booming again, with growth this year expected to be the fastest in nearly seven decades. Even cruise ships, an early vector for the spread of the virus, are resuming voyages after a break of more than a year.
In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson plans to lift all remaining restrictions this month, despite ongoing fears about the Delta variant. The UK recorded more than 30,000 new infections in one day for the first time since January this week.
Elsewhere in Europe, tens of thousands of football fans in several cities were able to follow their national teams at the European Championship live a year after the tournament was postponed, although the number of spectators in some stadiums was severely limited.
In parts of the developing world, it is a story of desperation.
In Latin America, only 1 in 10 people are fully vaccinated, which is helping to increase cases in countries like Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia, and Uruguay. Meanwhile, the virus is invading remote areas of Africa that have so far been spared, and is contributing to a sharp rise in cases.
Peru is one of the countries hardest hit by the virus, with the highest death rate of any country in the world based on population.
In Arequipa, Vilca’s suicide was splashed on the front pages of the tabloids in the city of 1 million. His widow said his death was a protest against the worsening conditions of COVID-19 patients.
Peru has only 2,678 ICU beds nationwide for a population of 32 million – a small number, even by Latin America’s low standards. Vilca was also not among the lucky 14% of Peruvians who received a single dose of the vaccine.
A new routine has emerged across the country as people spend their days filling heavy, green oxygen tanks that were bought on the black market and are a lifeline for sick loved ones. Some companies tripled the price of oxygen, forcing many people to plunder their savings or sell their belongings.
From the hospital where Vilca died, “he called and said they had all been abandoned. Nobody was paying attention, ”said his widow, showing a photo on her cell phone that her husband had sent of himself in one of the rare moments when he was lucky enough to have an oxygen mask.
Aside from South America, which accounts for around 40% of daily deaths from COVID-19, India has emerged as the other leading cause of death. Even then, experts believe the 1,000 or so deaths occurring daily in India are almost certainly outnumbered.
In the state of Madhya Pradesh, which has over 73 million people, a journalist found that the increase in recorded deaths from all causes in May alone was five times the pre-pandemic figure and 67 times the official death toll from the virus for the month scam. that was 2,451.
Rich countries like the UK, the US and France have pledged to donate around 1 billion COVID-19 vaccinations to fill the inequality gap. But experts say it will take 11 billion to immunize the world. Of the 3 billion doses given worldwide, less than 2% were given in developing countries.
“The commitment to provide one billion doses is a drop in the ocean,” said Agnes Callemard, general secretary of Amnesty International. She criticized politicians who opted for “more of the same poor half measures and inadequate gestures”.
The United Nations-backed effort to distribute vaccines to poor countries, known as COVAX, has also stalled badly. Its largest supplier, the Serum Institute of India, stopped exporting vaccines in March to fight the epidemic in the subcontinent.
Meanwhile, countries like the Seychelles, Chile and Bahrain that rely on Chinese-made vaccines have seen outbreaks even after reaching relatively high coverage, raising questions about the effectiveness of the vaccines.
Dora Curry, an Atlanta-based director of health equity at the charity CARE, said she was deeply concerned that while children are being vaccinated in Germany, France and the US, aid to people in poor countries is slow to arrive.
“If there was a way to give that dose to someone in Uganda, I would,” said Curry, who admitted that she will likely have her 11-year-old daughter vaccinated if she is eligible. “But that only speaks for the problems with our sales system.”
Goodman answered from Miami, Cheng from London. AP journalists Krutika Pathi and Aniruddha Ghosal contributed from New Delhi.