With new cases surging in Europe, the world is recording its highest daily infection counts since the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic seven months ago.
On Thursday, the WHO reported a record one-day increase of 338,779 new infections. Globally, more than 5,000 people are dying each day from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. The pandemic’s death toll stands at about 1.07 million, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in the past century and a global crisis with catastrophic consequences.
The World Bank this week said the pandemic is likely to cause the first rise in extreme poverty since 1998 with up to 115 million more people falling into that category this year. The bank had previously estimated up to 100 million people in 2020 would fall below the extreme poverty line, defined as living on less than $1.90 a day.
On the flip side, the pandemic is making the world’s richest even richer. A report from the Swiss bank UBS this week found that the wealth of the world’s 2,189 billionaires reached a new high of $10.2 trillion by the end of July. The wealth of the world’s richest grew by 27.5% between April and July, the report said. Industrialists and healthcare and tech billionaires have done the best, according to the report.
India leads the world in the number of new daily infections and deaths. On average, India is reporting more than 70,000 new daily infections and more than 900 deaths each day. Its death toll stands at more than 106,500 and the virus has been detected in nearly 7 million people in India.
The United States and Brazil, meanwhile, are the worst-hit nations in the world. U.S. President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro are faulted for downplaying the risk of the infection and hindering efforts to suppress it.
In Brazil, the number of new daily infections has dropped from a high of over 70,000 cases in early August to more than 25,000 in recent days. Still, the daily death toll remains high with 730 COVID-19-19 fatalities reported on Thursday. Nearly 150,000 people in Brazil have died in the pandemic.
The U.S. is failing to contain the infection, too. The rate of infection is beginning to rise again in the U.S. with more than 56,000 new cases reported Thursday. Americans continue to die in staggering numbers with 957 deaths linked to the virus on Thursday. The U.S. death toll, the world’s highest, stands at about 218,000.
Europe too can’t keep the virus in check.
On Friday, Socialist Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez declared a state of emergency in Madrid, deepening a political fight with the Madrid region’s conservative leader, Isabel Diaz Ayuso, who’d resisted tough measures. On Thursday, a regional court struck down restrictions Sanchez’s government had imposed, forcing him to declare the state of emergency.
About 7,000 police officers were mustered to enforce the restrictions, which include a ban on nonessential travel outside the city and surrounding suburban cities. About 4.8 million are affected by the state of emergency. Since early August, Spain has been in the grips of a second wave of the virus with daily infections surging past 9,000 cases for much of September. The rate of spread has dropped to about 5,600 new cases each day.
But Spain is not the only European nation experiencing an alarming spread of infection.
The United Kingdom and France are reporting the most new infections in Europe. On Thursday, France reported more than 18,000 new cases and the U.K. more than 17,500 new cases.
In the U.K., tougher measures to curb the infection, such as the early closing of pubs and restaurants and prohibitions against families seeing each other, are in place across northern England, Wales and Scotland.
“We are at a perilous moment in the course of this pandemic. In parts of the country, the situation is again, becoming very serious,” said Health Secretary Matt Hancock. “Unfortunately, we are seeing hospitalizations of the over-60s rising sharply and the number of deaths from coronavirus also rising.”
Deaths, though, across Europe have been rising slowly so far and there is hope that new medications and treatments, combined with efforts to keep more vulnerable people protected, will prevent many deaths.
“The good side (is that) when the COVID pandemic was at its climax in March,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, at a news briefing on Friday, “the number of cases was high and the number of deaths was also high. But what we see now is very different. The number of cases is high but the number of deaths is low. That’s a very important progress.”
France too has imposed restrictions in places where the infection is rampant and French Health Minister Olivier Veran is warning that much tougher restrictions may be needed. Bars and cafes have been closed in Paris and Marseille. Similar measures may be imposed in the cities of Lyon, Lille, Grenoble and Saint-Etienne.
“The health situation in France, alas, is continuing to worsen,” Veran said. “Every day in France, more and more people are being infected, more and more are falling ill, and more and more are suffering serious effects that require hospitalization.”
On Friday, Italy reported more than 5,000 new COVID-19 cases, a steep rise that has left the country spooked as it fears being plunged back into another wave of death. This week, Italy imposed a nationwide mandate to wear masks outdoors. Germany too is reporting a surge in cases and mulling tougher restrictions.
To the east, Poland, Russia and Ukraine are reporting very high numbers of new cases, too. In Moscow, authorities are talking about closing bars and nightclubs.
For now, though, European leaders are not contemplating nationwide lockdowns. Lockdowns are viewed as a last resort to control an outbreak that is out of control. Increasingly, the economic damage and ill effects of lockdowns are becoming clear as economies slump and health experts warn of an uptick in suicides, mental health problems, substance abuse and physical abuse.
“What governments are trying to do is not lock down,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO emergencies chief. “We need to try and prevent the disease becoming a rampant epidemic at country level and spilling into older populations, and vulnerable populations and causing high numbers of deaths. We need to protect those populations.”
In a boost to the WHO’s efforts to distribute coronavirus vaccines at cheap prices around the globe, China on Friday said it was joining a WHO mission to get nations to commit to the global distribution of vaccines.
More than 170 nations have joined the initiative, including most of the world’s major nations such as the U.K., Japan, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Israel. The European Union and France helped launch it.
The U.S. and Russia have not yet joined the initiative, known as the Covax facility.
Scores of low and middle-income countries have signed on with the hope of receiving vaccine doses at good prices. The WHO says the pandemic can only be overcome when enough people around the world become immune and it says vaccines are the best way to achieve that.
“We have solemnly pledged to make vaccines developed and deployed by China a global public good, which will be provided to developing countries as a priority,” said Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry.
China’s decision to join the WHO initiative is seen also as a move to try to score political points against the U.S.
Trump has withdrawn the U.S. from the WHO, accusing the United Nations health agency of working on behalf of China to cover up the severity of the virus after it emerged last year in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
“The more countries that join the Covax facility, the more economies that are a part of that, the better,” said Dr. Bruce Alyward, a senior adviser at WHO. “It’s quite simply as simple as that.”
— Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.