Cases of COVID-19 are spiking globally, with some countries seeing record numbers of daily cases and deaths as new variants circulate widely and vaccine shortages prohibit widespread access.
Worldwide, newly reported cases are at their highest levels since the beginning of the pandemic. Cases have increased for the ninth week in a row, with as many new infections reported last week as in the first five months of the pandemic.
India leads the world in the number of new daily cases, hitting a global record of more than 360,900 Wednesday, amid concern that a more contagious variant is fueling the surge. The country is facing an urgent oxygen shortage, and medical facilities are overwhelmed nationwide.
“What’s underway in India is of tragic, nightmarish proportions. It’s the worst-case scenario that everyone imagined,” said Dr. Tom Kenyon, chief health officer at Project HOPE.
Brazil, the United States, Turkey, France, and Argentina follow India in the number of new daily cases over the past week, according to the World Health Organization. For new infections relative to the size of their populations, Cyprus, Uruguay, Seychelles Bahrain, and Turkey lead the world, all with over 380 cases per 100,000 people.
The pandemic has slammed the Americas. The two continents account for almost half of the cases and deaths from COVID-19 globally.
“Many health systems, especially those in South and Central America, are still struggling to cope with an influx of patients,” said Dr. Carissa Etienne, director at the Pan American Health Organization, during a press conference Wednesday.
She added that several countries are reporting increases in cases among younger populations. This demographic is burdening health care systems, as younger patients often require longer hospital stays than those over 60 years old.
For the first time since the pandemic began, some states in Brazil reported more deaths than births last week.
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Cases are also surging across the Caribbean, Etienne said. Anguilla reported more than 60% of its total cases since the start of the pandemic in the past several days, and weekly infections doubled in Puerto Rico during the same period.
Nearly every country in Central America is reporting a rise in infections, she said. Hospitalizations are at an all-time high in Costa Rica, and the country reported a 50% jump in cases in the past week. Guatemala’s hospitals have reached maximum capacity. In Colombia, major cities such as Bogota and Medellín are running out of intensive care unit beds.
Last week, Argentina’s health minister said the country is going through its “worst moment” of the pandemic, adding that the country’s health care system is at risk, especially in Buenos Aires.
Canada’s infection rates have surpassed U.S. figures for the first time in the pandemic, Etienne said.
The Middle East and northern Africa are also seeing caseloads rising and health systems stretched. Iran, which has reported the largest number of cases in the region, saw its highest daily death toll Monday, with 496 deaths. Pakistan reported its highest daily death toll Wednesday, with 201 deaths. Last week, one of the Tunisian government’s scientific advisers said that the health system was nearing collapse.
According to a spokesperson for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Iraq has consistently seen increasing incidence in both cases and deaths for several weeks, and there is likely significant underreporting from several regions in the country where health systems are already stretched and where physical distancing and other mandates have become more relaxed during holiday seasons.
Turkey has recently seen its largest surge in COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began. The country hosts many displaced populations, who might be less likely to report illness or seek out testing due to their status within the country, their ability to work, and stigma from the local community, according to IFRC, which added that levels of vaccine hesitancy in the Middle East and northern Africa are among the lowest of all regions.
Malaysia on Wednesday hit 3,142 new cases, which is the highest number of new infections the nation has seen in two months. Some countries that experienced significant biweekly increases in reported cases include Sri Lanka at 126%, Thailand at 295%, Democratic Republic of Congo at 101%, Central African Republic at 194%, and Afghanistan at 90%, according to IFRC.
On Sunday, India’s neighbor Nepal hit its highest daily figure of new cases this year. The country saw a biweekly increase in reported infections of 550%, IFRC said.
“Nepal is highest on our list for being on the brink,” said Project HOPE’s Kenyon, adding that both India and Nepal recently had religious festivals, with people visiting the former for celebrations likely returning to the latter with the coronavirus.
“Nepal has a much weaker health system than India. They have a major shortage of health care workers … and a much lower per capita expenditure on health care than India,” he said. “I am very concerned about Nepal.”
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A spokesperson for Médecins Sans Frontières said the organization is “watching closely” the pandemic in Yemen, Iraq, Papua New Guinea, Peru, and Brazil. MSF reported last week that the situation in Peru is “driving the medical staff and hospitals to the brink of collapse,” adding that the country suffers from the highest number of excess deaths in the world relative to its population.
Organizations including the International Rescue Committee and Alight said they are concerned about the pandemic in countries experiencing conflict, such as Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Somalia, as well as nations with influxes of refugees, including Iraq and Lebanon.
“An escalation of cases can occur anywhere, and that’s why we have to be vigilant. Nobody predicted India would happen. … Nobody would have predicted this explosive catastrophe that they are now trying to deal with,” Kenyon said.