More than HIV More than dysentery. More than malaria, flu, cholera and measles combined.
In the 10 months since the mysterious pneumonia struck Wuhan, China, Covid-19 has killed more than a million people worldwide since Monday, a staggering number, according to official estimates, but one that greatly underestimates how many actually died. It may have already overtaken tuberculosis and hepatitis as the deadliest infectious disease in the world, and unlike all other contenders, it is still growing rapidly.
As has not been seen for more than a century, the coronavirus has penetrated every inhabited part of the globe, sowing terror and poverty, infecting millions of people in some countries and paralyzing entire economies. But because the focus is on the destruction caused by the cessation of much of the world̵7;s commercial, educational, and social life, it is all too easy to lose sight of the most direct human costs.
More than a million people – parents, children, siblings, friends, neighbors, colleagues, teachers, classmates – all disappeared, suddenly, prematurely. Covid-19 survivors lie low for weeks or even months before recovery, and many have long-term side effects, the severity and duration of which remain unclear.
And yet most of the suffering could have been avoided – one of the most heartfelt aspects of all.
“It’s a very serious global event, and a lot of people were going to get sick and a lot of them were going to die, but it didn’t have to be that bad,” said Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Health Center. people from epidemics and disasters.
Places such as China, Germany, South Korea and New Zealand have shown that a pandemic can be slowed down enough to limit infections and deaths by opening businesses and schools at the same time.
But this requires a combination of elements that may be beyond the reach of poorer countries and which even the United States has failed to gather: large-scale testing, contact tracking, quarantine, social distancing, wearing masks, providing protective equipment, developing a clear and consistent strategy. , and wanting to quickly close the situation when problems arise.
None, two or three factors are key. “It’s all an ecosystem. It all works together, ”said Martha Nelson, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health who specializes in epidemics and viral genetics and is studying Covid-19.
It comes down to resources, vigilance, political will, and the fact that almost everyone takes the threat seriously – conditions that are harder to achieve when the disease is politicized, when governments respond slowly or inconsistently, and when each state or region goes its own way, whether appropriate or not. .
“It’s one thing to have all the technical capabilities, but if our leaders undermine science, minimize the epidemic, or mistakenly reassure people, we’re jeopardizing everything else,” Dr. Inglesby said.
Experts say governments have reacted too slowly, waiting for their own countries or regions to be besieged, or dismissing the threat, or viewing it as a problem for China, or Asia, or Italy, or Europe, or New York.
Thomas R. Frieden, former head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the main failure was in government communication with the public, nowhere else than in the United States.
“You have standard principles for communicating risk: be first, be right, be reliable, be compassionate,” he said. “If you tried to break these principles more than the Trump administration, I don’t think you could do that.”
The world now knows how to bend the pandemic curve – not to eliminate the risk, but to keep it at a controllable level – and there have been surprises along the way.
The masks turned out to be more useful than Western experts had predicted. Social distancing on an unprecedented scale was more feasible and effective than anticipated. The difference in danger between outdoor and indoor collection is greater than expected.
And most importantly, people are most contagious when they first show symptoms or even earlier, and not days or weeks later when they are most ill – a change in the usual pattern of infectious diseases. This makes preventive measures such as wearing masks and rapid reactions, such as isolating and testing people for possible effects, much more important; if you wait until the problem is detected, you have waited too long.
Countries found it difficult to learn that their supply chains for test kits, laboratory chemicals, and protective equipment were inadequate, too prone to breakage, or too dependent on foreign suppliers.
It remains unclear how the virus mutates or how fast, making it impossible to predict how long a possible vaccine may last. More broadly, the pandemic has revealed how little scientists know about coronaviruses, even those that cause colds, and especially those that circulate in bats and other animals.
“People who are in blockade mode think it happens all the time, but for scientists it’s just the beginning,” said Dr. Nelson. “We’re still just scratching the surface of it.”
From a health perspective, the biggest uncertainty may be whether the world will be better prepared when – not if, but when – the next pandemic occurs.