Covid-19 deaths reach 2m amid lockdowns and fresh outbreaks

Nations step up efforts to keep virus at bay as fatalities continue to rise at alarming pace

A man showing symptoms of Covid-19 is monitored inside an isolation chamber in South Africa, on Jan 15, 2021.
A man showing symptoms of Covid-19 is monitored inside an isolation chamber in South Africa, on Jan 15, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

The number of deaths linked to the coronavirus is still accelerating at an alarming pace, with the world set to cross the grim milestone of two million fatalities today.

There was no sign of a let-up yesterday, with several countries, including Britain and the Philippines, tightening measures to keep the pandemic at bay even as a new virus variant from Brazil - which appears to spread faster - raised fresh alarm.

The sense of urgency is growing as the virus continues its rapid spread. After Covid-19 claimed its first victim in China on Jan 9 last year, it took nine months for the world to record its first million deaths as the disease made its way rapidly around the globe. Now, it has taken just over three months to reach the second million.

In the United States - which leads all countries in Covid-19 deaths, accounting for one in five global fatalities - President-elect Joe Biden called the country's vaccination efforts a "dismal failure" amid soaring new infections and deaths.

"We will have to move heaven and earth to get more people vaccinated," said Mr Biden, who takes office next week.

Only 3.4 per cent of Americans have received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, while 64 per cent of the distributed vaccines have yet to be used. Meanwhile, daily new cases averaged 240,000 over the past seven days, and there have been over 4,000 deaths on many days since the year began.

In Germany, which has recorded two million cases and a sharp surge in deaths, Chancellor Angela Merkel is considering even tougher social distancing measures, including border checks and rules to don special masks in some places.

Gatherings with more than one person from another household are currently banned until Jan 31.

Meanwhile, the British government banned travel from South America and Portugal starting yesterday in an effort to keep out a new virus variant from Brazil that was first found in four travellers to Japan from the state of Amazonas.

The Brazilian variant shares some characteristics with those found in Britain and South Africa, which scientists say can spread faster but are unlikely to cause more severe disease.

The Philippines extended a ban until Jan 31 on all travellers from more than 30 countries and territories to contain the spread of the new virus variants.

China is discouraging people from making the traditional trip back to their home towns for the Chinese New Year, with local governments and employers offering workers a slew of incentives to persuade them not to travel. Nearly 22 million people in four cities in its north-east are under lockdown.

Indonesia, which recorded daily highs in infections this week, may allow companies to procure their own vaccines to immunise staff.

With the roll-out of vaccinations uneven across the globe, the odds of quickly bringing the pandemic to heel remain slim.

"We have a great forest fire of a pandemic happening," said Associate Professor Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health. "But if you have just a bucket of water in a forest fire, then you aren't doing well."

• Additional reporting by Bloomberg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 16, 2021, with the headline 'Covid-19 deaths reach 2m amid lockdowns and fresh outbreaks'. Subscribe