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As global pandemic deaths pass 1 million, how can we get the virus under control?

More than 1 million people have died from the COVID-19 pandemic worldwide, with a total of 33 million confirmed cases. How do we make sense of such staggering numbers, and what can we do to change this tragic trajectory? Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove of the World Health Organization joins William Brangham to discuss the magnitude of this global catastrophe -- and how we can minimize more harm.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The global death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic is now above one million people, and there have been 33 million cases of infection worldwide. The numbers are almost too staggering to comprehend.

    But William Brangham is here tonight with some perspective and a conversation about all of this.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, this death toll is now four times greater than the number of people who lost their lives in 2004 in the tsunami that hit Indonesia.

    But, thankfully, so far at least, this pandemic is nowhere near as bad as 1918, when the influenza virus killed an estimated 50 million people globally.

    Still, this pandemic has taken far too many lives in roughly 10 months. More than 5,000 people die every day, on average. Ten countries account for 70 percent of the deaths, led by the United States, which has more than 20 percent of all global deaths. Brazil, India, Mexico, and the United Kingdom round off the top five.

    The elderly still make up the largest percentage of those who died globally. And the epicenter has also shifted, from China and Southeast Asia to Europe, then to the U.S., and now to India and South America.

    For more on all of this, I'm joined by Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove of the World Health Organization.

    Dr. Van Kerkhove, very good to have you on the "NewsHour."

    Obviously, this is a terribly sad day, to have lost now a million people at least to this coronavirus. Why do you think we are still having such a hard time getting our arms around this pandemic?

  • Maria Van Kerkhove:

    Well, thanks for having me on the show. And, indeed, this is a completely tragic milestone that we reached of at least a million deaths due to this virus, the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, a virus we didn't know about 10 months ago.

    And I think we do need to take a moment and pause and reflect on how tragic this actually is. These are one million people who have died because of this virus. These are mothers and fathers and children and sons and daughters and friends.

    And we were thinking about this today, and I was trying to wrap my head around a million people. And if you think about sporting events that all people go to, if we think about football in the U.S. and baseball stadiums, between 50,000 and 1,000 people in each one of those stadiums, that's 10 football stadiums' worth of people who have passed away. And that is really tragic.

    And we, as WHO, we are working with all countries, with everyone everywhere to do everything that we can to prevent as many infections as we can, prevent as many deaths as we can, because there is so much that we can do to turn this around.

  • William Brangham:

    Help me understand, though, how we have gotten to this. We know the difficulties that each nation have had, but why is it that this — we have hit this mark?

  • Maria Van Kerkhove:

    Yes.

    Well, it's a new virus. And it's a virus that we're continuing to learn about. And the entire world is susceptible to infection. And this virus spreads. It's a respiratory pathogen, and so it could spread easily between people.

    And we have a globally interconnected world, and it spread around the world. And I think what we are seeing with many countries, and many countries that have had experience with other similar pathogens, like SARS, like MERS, like polio, like highly pathogenic avian influenza, like Ebola, many of those countries knew immediately the seriousness of this and immediately knew the threat.

    And what they did is, they activated a public health system that's been in place for decades that is based on the fundamentals of active case-finding, contact tracing, testing, isolation of cases, quarantine of contacts, really readying their system, and, in many respects, immediately seeing that this was not just a health issue. This was something that needed an all-of-society approach, working across many different sectors.

  • William Brangham:

    So, these are nations that you're saying that had been burned before and knew to be afraid of the flame when it came around the next time.

  • Maria Van Kerkhove:

    Yes.

  • William Brangham:

    What about the nations like we have seen, like India or Brazil, that have seemingly swerved somewhat wildly in their response? How would you characterize their reaction?

  • Maria Van Kerkhove:

    What we like to do is — I mean, it's important that we look at a national level and we look at these national numbers and surveillance numbers of cases and hospitalizations, ICU.

    What's most important is, we look at the sub-national level. This virus doesn't spread uniformly across all the population. It operates in clusters. And so what we need to do, and especially in large countries, Brazil, India, the U.S., we need to break it down into the smallest level possible, and the smallest administrative level possible.

    It's important to have strong national plans. This is about what the goal is. And our goal for this is to suppress transmission, save lives, and save livelihoods. But the actions need to be targeted and implemented at the most local level.

    We're in a very, very different position than we were in five months ago, six months ago. We know so much more about this virus. We know what works. We know what works in terms of breaking chains of transmission, in terms of controlling transmission.

    And we know what works in terms of saving lives. Right now, it's about having the will to do that and having the systems in place and activating that to make sure that it happens.

  • William Brangham:

    Certainly, here in the U.S., we have seen a disproportionate share of infections and deaths have fallen on poorer, minority communities here.

    Is that true globally? Are we seeing a similar pattern enacting elsewhere around the world?

  • Maria Van Kerkhove:

    It is, yes.

    We know that there are — there are many vulnerable populations in every country of the world, and vulnerable populations are disproportionately affected by this virus. You know, it's a double injustice that we are seeing, with this virus and with the inequities that we are seeing across the globe in many populations, populations that have lesser access to health care, have lesser access to insurance, have higher rates of underlying conditions.

    And we know that people who have underlying conditions of any age and people who are over the age of 60 are at a higher risk of severe disease and death. And we're seeing that across all countries. And, as I said in the beginning, there's so much that people can do to protect themselves, protect themselves, and protect their loved ones.

    This is at an individual level. And it's the basics. These are the public health basics. This is about hand hygiene. It's about wearing a mask. It's about practicing respiratory etiquette. It's about avoiding enclosed crowded spaces with poor ventilation. It's about improving ventilation when you have to go indoors.

    It's about staying healthy, keeping yourself mentally healthy as well, with this infodemic of information that is just bombarding us all the time, making sure that you are well-informed.

    What we are advising now is a risk-based approach for everyone to take in terms of their daily life. Do I — can I work from home if possible? Do I need to do this barbecue with my friends? Do I want to? Yes, I do. But do I need to right now?

    And what are the small sacrifices that each of us can make towards this common goal of ending this pandemic?

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove of the World Health Organization, thank you very much for joining us on this really awful day.

  • Maria Van Kerkhove:

    Thank you for having me.

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