July 8, 2021 AREQUIPA, Peru (AP) — On the last day of Javier Vilca’s life, his wife stood outside a hospital window with a teddy bear, red balloons and a box of chocolates to celebrate his birthday, and held up a giant, hand-scrawled sign that read: “Don’t give up. You’re the best man in the world.”
Minutes later, Vilca, a 43-year-old struggling radio journalist who had battled depression, jumped four stories to his death — the fifth suicide by a COVID-19 patient at Peru’s overwhelmed Honorio Delgado hospital since the pandemic began.
Vilca became yet another symbol of the despair caused by the coronavirus and the stark and seemingly growing inequities exposed by COVID-19 on its way to a worldwide death toll of 4 million, a milestone recorded Wednesday by Johns Hopkins University.
At the hospital where Vilca died on June 24, a single doctor and three nurses were frantically rushing to treat 80 patients in an overcrowded, makeshift ward while Vilca gasped for breath because of an acute shortage of bottled oxygen.
“He promised me he would make it,” said Nohemí Huanacchire, weeping over her husband’s casket in their half-built home with no electricity on the outskirts of Arequipa, Peru’s second-largest city. “But I never saw him again.”
The number of lives lost around the world over the past year and a half is about equal to the population of Los Angeles or the nation of Georgia. It is three times the number of victims killed in traffic accidents around the globe per year. By some estimates, it is roughly the number of people killed in battle in all of the world’s wars since 1982.
Even then, the toll is widely believed to be an undercount because of overlooked cases of deliberate concealment.
More than six months after vaccines became available, reported COVID-19 deaths worldwide have dropped to around 7,900 a day, after topping out at over 18,000 a day in January. The World Health Organization recorded just under 54,000 deaths last week, the lowest weekly total since last October.
While vaccination campaigns in the U.S. and parts of Europe are ushering in a period of post-lockdown euphoria, and children there are being inoculated so that 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 multitudes in Africa remain unprotected because of severe vaccine shortages.
Also, the highly contagious delta variant is spreading rapidly, setting off alarms, driving up case counts in places and turning the crisis increasingly into a race between the vaccine and the mutant version.
The variant has been detected in at least 96 countries. Australia, Israel, Malaysia, Hong Kong and other places have reimposed restrictions to try to suppress it.
The variants, uneven access to vaccines and the relaxation of precautions in some wealthier countries are “a toxic combination that is very dangerous,” warned Ann Lindstrand, a top immunization official at WHO.
Instead of treating the crisis as a “me-and-myself-and-my-country” problem, she said, “we need to get serious that this is a worldwide problem that needs worldwide solutions.”
While the U.S. missed President Joe Biden’s goal of getting at least one shot into 70% of American adults by the Fourth of July, deaths nationwide are down sharply to around 200 per day, from a peak of over 3,400 per day in January.
And the U.S. economy has been roaring back, with growth this year forecast to be the fastest in almost seven decades. Even cruise ships, an early vector for the virus’s spread, are resuming voyages after a hiatus of more than a year.
In Britain, despite persistent fears about the delta variant, Prime Minister Boris Johnson plans to lift all remaining restrictions this month. Britain this week recorded a one-day total of more than 30,000 new infections for the first time since January.
Elsewhere in Europe, tens of thousands of soccer fans in several cities were able to watch in person their national teams compete in the European Championship a year after the tournament was postponed, though attendance in some stadiums was severely restricted.