The authorities in Malaysia have barred people from venturing more than about six miles from home. Covid-19 patients are spilling into the hallways of overcrowded hospitals in Argentina. In Nepal, 40 percent of coronavirus tests are positive, suggesting that the virus is racing through the population.
All three nations are experiencing their worst coronavirus outbreaks since the start of the pandemic, joining countries across Asia and South America where infections have surged to record levels — a stark counterpoint to the optimism felt in the United States as summer dawns.
Deep into the second year of the pandemic, the emergence of coronavirus variants and the global gaps in access to vaccines have plunged parts of the world back into the anxious stages of Covid-19. Argentina, Malaysia South Africa and others have reimposed lockdowns. Thailand and Taiwan, which kept the virus in check for much of 2020, have closed schools and nightspots in the face of new waves.
Scores are dying daily in Paraguay and Uruguay, which now have the highest reported fatality rates per person in the world, according the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. India’s catastrophic second wave has killed more than 3,000 people every day for the past month, according to official statistics, and experts believe the true toll is far greater.
The reasons for the surges vary across countries, but together they reflect “the challenge of maintaining vigilance against a highly transmissible, airborne virus for long periods of time, balanced against economic and social considerations,” said Claire Standley, an assistant research professor at the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University.
Globally, new infections have declined from their peak of more than 800,000 recorded cases a day in late April. Still, half a million people are reported infected with the virus daily. And countries that have kept cases low for more than a year, such as Australia and Singapore, are seeing small pockets of infections that have prompted partial lockdowns and delayed plans to reopen borders.
The only way to stamp out such surges, experts say, is to rapidly increase vaccinations, which have raced ahead in the United States and Europe while the rest of the world falls behind. In North America, 60 vaccine doses have been administered for every 100 people, compared with 27 in South America and 21 in Asia, according to data from the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford. In Africa, the rate is two doses per 100 people.
“Global vaccine access has been woefully inequitable, with a handful of high-income countries dominating procurement agreements and receipt of initial batches,” Dr. Standley said.
The gap leaves many countries vulnerable.
In South America, countries that imposed lockdown measures found that they did not work as well as in the United States and Europe at stopping the spread of the virus because many low-income laborers needed to continue to work, said Matthew Richmond, a sociologist at the London School of Economics. As new outbreaks emerge, the region’s lack of investment in medical care has put health systems at risk of collapse and delayed the rollout of vaccines, he said.
“The combined effect of social inequality and weak state capacity have meant these countries have not been able to reduce transmission, treat those with severe symptoms or vaccinate populations at the same scale or speed” as in the United States and Europe, Dr. Richmond said.
Even if rich countries shut off travel with countries where the virus remains endemic, border closings could mean little as long as the virus circulates widely. And new variants could emerge that are more resistant to vaccines.
“The ongoing devastation being wreaked by Covid-19 in the Global South should be reason enough for the rich countries to want to enable a quick and cheap global vaccine rollout,” Dr. Richmond said. “If it’s not, enlightened self-interest should lead them to the same conclusion.”