Over the past 10 months, the virus has taken more lives than H.I.V., malaria, influenza and cholera. And as it sows destruction in daily life around the globe, it is still growing quickly.
By Richard Pérez-Peña
More than H.I.V. More than dysentery. More than malaria, influenza, cholera and measles — combined.
In the 10 months since a mysterious pneumonia began striking residents of Wuhan, China, Covid-19 has killed more than one million people worldwide as of Monday — an agonizing toll compiled from official counts, yet one that far understates how many have really died. It may already have overtaken tuberculosis and hepatitis as the world’s deadliest infectious disease, and unlike all the other contenders, it is still growing fast.
Like nothing seen in more than a century, the coronavirus has infiltrated every populated patch of the globe, sowing terror and poverty, infecting millions of people in some nations and paralyzing entire economies. But as attention focuses on the devastation caused by halting a large part of the world’s commercial, educational and social life, it is all too easy to lose sight of the most direct human cost.
More than a million people — parents, children, siblings, friends, neighbors, colleagues, teachers, classmates — all gone, suddenly, prematurely. Those who survive Covid-19 are laid low for weeks or even months before recovering, and many have lingering ill effects whose severity and duration remain unclear.
Yet much of the suffering could have been avoided — one of the most heartbreaking aspects of all.
“This is a very serious global event, and a lot of people were going to get sick and many of them were going to die, but it did not need to be nearly this bad,” said Tom Inglesby, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, which aims to protect people’s health from epidemics and disasters.
Places like China, Germany, South Korea and New Zealand have shown that it is possible to slow the pandemic enough to limit infections and deaths while still reopening businesses and schools.
But that requires a combination of elements that may be beyond the reach of poorer countries and that even ones like the United States have not been able to muster: wide-scale testing, contact tracing, quarantining, social distancing, mask wearing, providing protective gear, developing a clear and consistent strategy, and being willing to shut things down in a hurry when trouble arises.
No one or two or three factors are the key. “It’s all an ecosystem. It all works together,” said Martha Nelson, a scientist at the National Institutes of Health who specializes in epidemics and viral genetics, and who studies Covid-19.
It comes down to resources, vigilance, political will and having almost everyone take the threat seriously — conditions harder to attain when the disease is politicized, when governments react slowly or inconsistently, and when each state or region goes its own way, advisable or not.
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