Home / Opinion / Views /  Global covid trends: The second wave and where we are headed

Global covid deaths now exceed 3.7 million, as officially recorded, and are fast approaching 500 per million of the world population. The six weeks ending 6 June 2021 saw more deaths per million (88) than in any earlier six-week period. This indicates that the second wave has still not peaked, globally.

The accompanying table traces the course of the pandemic by aggregating covid mortality data from 32 major countries which together account for about 69% of the global population and over 87% of all covid deaths.

The countries have been grouped into three categories: East Atlantic, comprising Europe (including neighbouring Iran); West Atlantic, comprising North and South America; and South and East Asia (Asia east of Afghanistan, and China. Central and West Asia are excluded because covid mortality in these regions is influenced by bordering Europe. The same applies to the Philippines, which borders the Americas.)

Ravages of the pandemic
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Ravages of the pandemic

In order to track the changing pattern of the pandemic across time and space, the data has been aggregated into 11 successive six-weekly snapshots beginning from 6 March to 21 April 2021, and ending 21 April to 8 June 2021.

Cross-country comparisons are contentious on account of differential rates of testing and under-reporting. Since rates of testing vary far more than the under-reporting of deaths, covid mortality is the preferred metric for such an analysis. There remains the issue of differential under-reporting of deaths across countries—more likely in low- income countries with poorer governance—so some margin for error needs to be factored in. The under-reporting of deaths can, however, be assumed to be constant over time—unlike variations in testing rates—and should not, therefore, affect the analysis of temporal trends.

The covid pandemic has two defining global patterns. First, aggregate covid mortality is much higher in the Transatlantic region, comprising North and South America, and Europe (and the contiguous Central Asian, Middle Eastern and North African regions). It is significantly lower in the rest of Asia and Africa.

Second, all regions have had two waves, but there are temporal variations in their spread and peak. The first wave peaked in Europe between 6 March 2020 and 20 April 2020, and the second wave between 6 December 2020 and 21 January 2021. The Americas had an extended first wave that folded into a second wave, without witnessing any decline between the two, as in Europe. Six-weekly mortality ranged between 150 and 180 during the period 20 April and 6 December 2020, before rising to a figure between 250 and 300 in the period up to 6 June 2021 during the second wave.

The second wave is well past its peak in Western Europe and North America, but still raging in Eastern Europe, South America, Turkey, Iran, Tunisia and India. India’s second wave began in February-March 2021. Almost half the covid deaths in India to date have occurred during the six weeks ending 6 June 2021. It also accounted for about a quarter of global—and 90% of Asian—covid deaths during this period. This is also the first six- week period of the pandemic when deaths per million in India exceeded those in Western Europe and North America, including the US. India’s second wave nevertheless appears to have peaked around 23 May at a seven-day daily average death rate of 4,191 (it was 2,970 on 5 June), making it 3.6 times as lethal as the country’s first wave, which peaked at 1,166 deaths on 15 September 2020.

The US has the world’s highest official covid mortality of over 600,000 deaths so far. Brazil is second with around 475,000. India is third with about 350,000, the only country outside Europe and the Americas with covid deaths in excess of 100,000 (Mexico, Peru, France, Italy, Russia and the UK are the others with covid deaths above this mark). In terms of deaths per million, however, Colombia is at the top of the mortality league table, at over 5,600. The global average is 484; Europe’s is 1,324 and the Americas’ is 1,984.

In contrast, India, despite high aggregate mortality, has a much lower official mortality of 250 per million. This would remain significantly lower even if one were to double or treble the numbers on account of under-reporting. India’s death rate is nevertheless over twice as high as the average for South and East Asia; the country accounts for about 76% of the total covid mortality in the region with just 38% of its population.

While there are regional variations, the data reveals that the second wave is over twice as deadly as the first. The average six-weekly global mortality during the first-wave period 6 March to 21 October 2020 was 29 per million, and 68 during the second between 21 October 2020 and 6 June 2021. Higher second-wave mortality conforms to the pattern of the Spanish Flu a century ago.

What lies ahead? Despite several models floating around, there remain many imponderables, such as vaccine availability in places where these are most needed, the effect of new mutants and possible third and fourth waves. If it’s any consolation, the Spanish Flu’s third and subsequent waves were of diminishing severity. We have little reason for complacency, though, as the second wave, including in India, might be spreading to new areas, keeping aggregate global mortality elevated even as it declines elsewhere. The growing number of virus mutants and global shortage of vaccines (and access) add to the uncertainty. It is too early for countries, even those less affected so far, to let down their guard.

Alok Sheel is RBI chair professor of macroeconomics, Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations

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