MEXICO CITY – The global death toll from COVID-19 topped 2 million Friday, crossing the threshold amid a vaccine rollout so immense but so uneven that in some countries there is real hope of vanquishing the outbreak, while in other, less-developed parts of the world, it seems a far-off dream.
The numbing figure was reached just over a year after the coronavirus was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan. The number of dead, compiled by Johns Hopkins University, is about equal to the population of Brussels, Mecca, Minsk or Vienna. It is roughly equivalent to the Cleveland metropolitan area or the state of Nebraska.
“There's been a terrible amount of death,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, a pandemic expert and dean of Brown University's School of Public Health. At the same time, he said, “our scientific community has also done extraordinary work.”
In wealthy countries including the U.S., Britain, Israel, Canada and Germany, millions of citizens have been given some measure of protection with at least one dose of vaccine developed with revolutionary speed and quickly authorized for use.
But elsewhere, immunization drives have barely gotten off the ground. Many experts are predicting another year of loss and hardship in Iran, India, Mexico and Brazil, which together account for about a quarter of the world's deaths.
“As a country, as a society, as citizens we haven't understood,” said Israel Gomez, a Mexico City paramedic who spent months shuttling COVID-19 patients around by ambulance, desperately looking for vacant hospital beds. “We have not understood that this is not a game, that this really exists.”
Mexico, a country of 130 million people, has received just 500,000 doses of vaccine and has put barely half of those into the arms of health care workers.
That's in sharp contrast to the situation for its wealthier northern neighbor. Hundreds of thousands of people are rolling up their sleeves every day in the United States, where the virus has killed about 390,000, by far the highest toll of any country.
All told, over 35 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered around the world, according to the University of Oxford.
While vaccination drives in rich countries have been hamstrung by long lines, inadequate budgets and a patchwork of state and local approaches, the obstacles are far greater in poorer nations, which can have weak health systems, crumbling transportation networks, entrenched corruption and a lack of reliable electricity to keep vaccines cold enough.
Also, the majority of the world's COVID-19 vaccine doses have been snapped up by wealthy countries. COVAX, a U.N.-backed project to supply shots to developing parts of the world, has found itself short of vaccine, money and logistical help.
As a result, the World Health Organization's chief scientist warned it is unlikely that herd immunity – which would require at least 70% of the globe to be vaccinated – will be achieved this year. As the disaster has demonstrated, it is not enough to snuff out the virus in a few places.
“Even if it happens in a couple of pockets, in a few countries, it's not going to protect people across the world,” Dr. Soumya Swaminathan said this week.
Health experts fear, too, that if shots are not distributed widely and fast enough, it could give the virus time to mutate and defeat the vaccine.
Although the death toll is based on figures supplied by government agencies around the world, the real number of lives lost to COVID-19 is believed to be significantly higher, in part because of inadequate testing and the many fatalities inaccurately attributed to other causes, especially early in the outbreak.
“What was never on the horizon is that so many of the deaths would be in the richest countries in the world,” said Dr. Bharat Pankhania, an infectious diseases expert at Britain's University of Exeter. “That the world's richest countries would mismanage so badly is just shocking.”