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Sobering Milestone: Global Coronavirus Deaths Near 1 Million

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Nearly 1 million lives lost to COVID-19. The world is on the verge of marking that terrible milestone; the global death toll only growing. It hasn't even been a year since the coronavirus was discovered in Wuhan, China. Now it's reached more than 200 countries. It has infected more than 33 million people. The virus has shut down entire economies, kept tens of millions of kids home from school and transformed daily life for people across the globe.

NPR global health correspondent Nurith Aizenman joins us now. Nurith, good morning. So this number - a million coronavirus deaths around the world - it's hard to fathom it. Which countries have been hardest hit?

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Yeah, Rachel, almost every nation has lost people in the pandemic. But it's striking that about half of the deaths are concentrated in just four countries. The U.S., which has the highest toll by far at more than 204,000, followed by Brazil with more than 141,000 dead, then India and Mexico. And what's more, all four of these countries are still struggling. They don't just rank highest in the world when it comes to the death toll over the full nine months of the pandemic; these four countries are also the worst ranked when it comes to daily new deaths over the past week.

MARTIN: We focus almost daily on the situation here in the U.S., but let's turn our attention to those other countries with those bad death tolls. Brazil, India, Mexico - why are so many people dying there?

AIZENMAN: Well, Brazil shares some features with the U.S. in that early on, its president, Jair Bolsonaro, was dismissive of the threat from the virus. The government's response was chaotic at best, and deaths surged all through July and August. But there was enough policy and behavior change so that about a month ago, the daily death count began dropping. Then more recently, that progress seems to have stalled, and Brazil is still seeing about 700 deaths a day. Similarly, in Mexico, the daily death toll has come down from what it was over the summer, but it's still very high. By contrast, in India, deaths have been on this pretty much uninterrupted rise since May, when the government lifted many lockdown measures.

MARTIN: Although, I mean, India's President Narendra Modi, in the beginning, he seemed to take the virus quite seriously, didn't he?

AIZENMAN: Right. But the economic impact of that early lockdown was so devastating officials decided they had to open back up many activities. Now, when you measure deaths per capita, India does not actually rank that high. Also, compared to other places, the fatality rate in India - you know, how many of those who get infected with coronavirus are dying from it - does seem to be lower.

Monica Gandhi is an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco. She told me that, sure, India might be failing to count some deaths...

MONICA GANDHI: But I do think the lower case fatality rate is real. So I find India fascinating because with all these cases, it should be just a rampant, you know, blood bath. And thank God it's not.

AIZENMAN: And theories for why it's not include that people there may have been more exposed to other coronaviruses, which has given them immunity. Maybe through the widespread practices of covering their nose and mouth, people have been getting lower, less lethal doses. And all of that could be encouraging news for some countries that are emerging as new hot spots.

MARTIN: Which countries are those, Nurith?

AIZENMAN: Israel for one - tiny country, but it's in the top 10 for daily new infections right now. When it comes to daily new deaths, Argentina has seen its toll rise for weeks now, and it's currently ranked fifth in the world on that measure. Meanwhile, countries that managed to curb very deadly early outbreaks are seeing a substantial resurgence of death - countries like Spain, United Kingdom and France.

MARTIN: NPR's Nurith Aizenman. Thank you so much, Nurith.

AIZENMAN: You're welcome, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.