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Coronavirus Death Toll Approaches 1 Million

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today the world reached a new threshold of misery in the coronavirus pandemic. At least 1 million people have now died of COVID-19. That's according to a tally maintained by Johns Hopkins University. Joining us now is NPR global health correspondent Nurith Aizenman. Hey, Nurith.

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: Hi.

CHANG: So 1 million lives gone - I mean, it's incredible to think we're reaching this death toll in less than a year.

AIZENMAN: Yeah. It's been just over nine months since the first death was reported in Wuhan, China.

CHANG: And just looking at these numbers, we're seeing that half of these deaths were just in four countries, right?

AIZENMAN: Right - the United States, Brazil, India and Mexico. And with the exception of India, these countries are not among the most populous in the world. But in the case of the United States - which has the highest number of deaths at more than 204,000 - and Brazil with more than 140,000 deaths, both of their presidents expressed a lot of skepticism about the threat from the virus. Their responses were chaotic. And deaths surged in July and August, then started to come down a bit but are now rising again. These four countries also don't just rank highest on total deaths over the entirety of the pandemic. In the past week, they've also had the highest number of new deaths.

CHANG: And are there any new hotspots emerging at this point?

AIZENMAN: In Argentina, the daily death toll has been climbing for months and has now really swerved up. European countries like Spain that saw a lot of death a while back are seeing another upswing.

CHANG: Now, you mentioned India is a special case. Why is that?

AIZENMAN: Yes. It's the world's second most populous nation. So for a country of that size, India's 95,000 deaths isn't, relatively speaking, all that high, which is all the more surprising since India is seeing a huge amount of infection. But among people who are contracting the virus there, the share who are dying doesn't seem to be as high as in some other countries. Monica Gandhi is an infectious disease specialist at University of California San Francisco. She says one theory is that people in India tend to dress with these flowing fabrics. So even though it's hard to social distance...

MONICA GANDHI: People can do one thing during all of this, which is pick up their cloth from their, you know, outfit and put it over their mouth and nose. If it reduces the amount of virus you get in so you get less sick, I think it could be driving down the severity of infection.

CHANG: That's so interesting.

AIZENMAN: Yeah. You get a lower dose of the virus. Maybe you're more likely to survive. Another theory - maybe people in India have been more exposed to previous coronaviruses, which gives them some immunity.

CHANG: Well, speaking of immunity, I mean, as more and more people have gotten infected, does that offer any hope in terms of seeing a slowdown in new cases or even new deaths?

AIZENMAN: Monica Gandhi says quite possibly. This is what's called herd immunity, of course. And, you know, Gandhi stresses it should not be pursued as a strategy because if you're reaching herd immunity through widespread infections as opposed to vaccinations, along the way, a lot of people will still die.

CHANG: Right.

AIZENMAN: Rather, she says herd immunity is a potential helpful effect we may notice in the coming months.

CHANG: Then again, it is going to get colder in the coming months, at least in the Northern Hemisphere as winter approaches. So do you think that's going to make the pandemic worse?

AIZENMAN: Well, one researcher, Jeffrey Shaman of Columbia University, says evidence does suggest the coronavirus transmits better in cold climates. People spend more time indoors.

JEFFREY SHAMAN: The virus will have more opportunities to move from person to person and be more innately transmissible. That works against us.

CHANG: That is NPR's Nurith Aizenman. Thank you so much, Nurith.

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