Global COVID-19 Death Toll Passes 1 Million Mark

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COVID-19 has claimed over a million lives as of September 29, 2020, marking a grave landmark for the pandemic.

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The COVID-19 death toll has now breached the 1 million mark globally, as it passes its third quarter. The World Health Organization warns that reaching 2 million deaths is highly likely, and a collective effort is needed to avoid this irreversible figure.

Since it emerged in December 2019, the novel coronavirus has ravaged countries around the world, leaving behind devastated businesses, grieving families, and health care workers spread too thin as they face the frontline of a massive health emergency. The pandemic has also swelled the already growing economic inequalities and political tensions in various parts of the globe and put world leaders in the spotlight, as their countrymen demand an adequate response to control the pandemic and its effects on people’s lives.

In the Philippines, we have seen regular economic activities come to a halt, the public transportation system shuttered, returning overseas Filipino workers anxious to come home, and throngs of families desperate to put food on the table. In a documentary by CNA Insider, urban poor families reel from joblessness and hunger — with some resorting to selling scavenged trash to junk shops or picking food wastage like scrap vegetables in a wet market in Manila.

For millions of Filipinos, adding to the threat of a deadly virus is the fear of starvation. In July, the Philippine Statistics Authority estimated that 4.6 million Filipinos have become unemployed since the lockdown began. These include workers in tourism and hospitality, arts and entertainment, and the construction industries, as well as informal sector workers like jeepney drivers and street vendors. About 7.6 million Filipinos have experienced involuntary hunger due to the pandemic. The urban poor, one of the most vulnerable groups in the Philippines, have to contend with piling debts from utility bills, rent, and basic necessities like rice.

The pandemic also has highlighted the grave inequalities endemic in our society. While many of us are able to shift to a work-from-home setup, millions are, quite literally, foraging to supply their lost incomes.

However, even with a nationwide lockdown in place, the number of infections has not been prevented from rising. The country’s current total sits at around 304,000 confirmed cases and 5,300 deaths — a worrisome figure making us a critical hotspot in Asia. In one study from the Ateneo de Manila University, researcher Jan Frederick Cruz said that there’s even a possibility that these figures are a massive undercount. Stifled by an insufficient testing policy, close to 3 million cases may have gone undetected.

For Malacañang, our current state can be viewed as a victory. Harry Roque, the presidential spokesperson, claimed in June that the country is winning against the pandemic, given the predictions by the University of the Philippines that there could have been 3.6 million cases without lockdown restrictions. Last week, Roque proceeded to laud the government once more and gave its COVID-19 response a “very good grade of 85%.” The administration has even lauded the country’s testing policy as the “best in Asia and probably the whole world,” even though it took months for the government to expand mass testing capacities in the country. Today, while some countries such as South Korea, Vietnam, and Thailand are back on their feet, the Philippines is still crawling under the crushing weight of the pandemic.

To add insult to injury, new issues have been popping up in the headlines every day, resulting to a public that has become restless and angry. Though equally relevant, the recent closure of media giant ABS-CBN, the hurried passing of the controversial Anti-Terrorism Law, the multibillion-peso PhilHealth fiasco, and the overpriced Manila Bay reclamation project have garnered the public’s attention and shifted the focus from the ongoing public health emergency. Protests have erupted left and right, and military intervention has been at an all-time high, pushing the country’s political divide even further.

Today, the pandemic is far from over. Those who are on the sidelines suffer the most; they are the ones dying everywhere in the world. They are the health care workers who contracted the virus at the front lines. They are the daily wage workers, left with no choice but to find ways to earn despite the threat of the virus. The dead are the elderlies, the ones with underlying health conditions, the people who have been neglected and pushed to the margins. They are the poor, cramped in the slums of our cities, some never even knowing what had eventually killed them.

Often, the bodies of the dead are not even given their due dignity. They are hauled in designated vehicles wrapped in sealed body bags, with clothes unlikely changed, and with not even a decent burial in place. They are simply enclosed in a casket, then brought to cemeteries and crematoriums for hurried internments. As such, friends and families have to hurry their mourning as well.

These are the daily scenes that are also reflected in many parts of the globe. The statistics render us numb. But every one of those who have recovered from the virus or have been left behind by the departed almost always wants to tell a story — of how the virus was contracted, of how difficult it got to breathe, of what their loved ones’ last minutes were like. They’d tell you that the one who passed was a good person — a loving mother, a hardworking father, a dedicated nurse, a brilliant doctor, a loving child who had big dreams. The grief that comes with every death is unquantifiable, every one of them too painful to bear.

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The World in View

As countries strive to bring a semblance of normalcy to their nations, the World Health Organization (WHO) warns that the world may approach another sinister conjuncture. Their emergencies director, Mike Ryan, has said that unless the world collectively takes action, 2 million deaths is not only imaginable but even sadly very likely.

“One million is a terrible number and we need to reflect on that before we start considering a second million. . . . Are we prepared to collectively do what it takes to avoid a second number?”

Over 50 countries are seeing a surge of second wave infections while 22 are still reeling from their first wave. Health protocols are rapidly turning more restrictive again, and people are getting angrier due to the lockdowns. In London, antilockdown protesters have clashed with riot police. Marseille, France, has likewise seen protests due to the closure of bars and restaurants. Spain, on the other hand, has heightened its restrictions in different cities due to the rise of cases in Madrid. India is also seeing a relentless increase in infections without “momentary plateaus,” leading one journalist to say that the country is in a seemingly unending first wave.

Vaccine projects are underway, but none concrete enough to be certain. While nine are already in their last clinical trials, manufacturing and distribution to the masses are entirely different processes altogether — one that involves different sectors and crosses geopolitical borders. Though optimistic, the WHO is viewing the vaccine development race with caution.

“I’m optimistic because I’ve been so impressed by the speed of development. But I’m also cautious because, even if they can really manage and develop safe and effective vaccines, the production capacity would not really meet the demand coming from the entire world,” says Dr. Takeshi Kasai, WHO Western Pacific Regional Director.

“What is important is we continue to improve our response and not just hope for the vaccine,” Takeshi adds.

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