The last few weeks have seen COVID-19 infections increasing again across the globe, after several months of decline or stability. Numbers from the World Health Organization show that cases are increasing across Asia, especially in the Western Pacific region, where cases went up by 29%. China has seen yet another outbreak, with Hong Kong affected to the point that the territory is seeing large-scale talent flight. In Africa, cases went up by 12%; and in Europe, where a number of countries have relaxed restrictions, cases have been rising in Germany, the UK, and Austria, among others.
This poses a major problem, according to the World Health Organization - because as testing regimes are relaxed alongside restrictions, it is likely that even these rising numbers have been under-reported.
"These increases are occurring despite reductions in testing in some countries, which means the cases we are seeing are just the tip of the iceberg," warned WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a press conference on 16 March.
"And we know that when cases increase, so do deaths."
He pointed out that even though the ongoing outbreaks and surges are to be expected given that economies are reopening and lifting safety restrictions, there are "unacceptably high levels of mortality in many countries".
At first glance, WHO's own figures show that the COVID death rate is dropping in most parts of the world, except for the Western Pacific, where deaths increased by 12% over the last week. But given that the mortality rate tends to lag after the reported infection rate, a spike in deaths might actually be possible in the coming weeks. Furthermore, these figures do not account for complications and non-COVID deaths caused by the disruption that a large COVID caseload creates for the healthcare system.
The WHO also warned that low vaccination rates in some countries, combined with widespread misinformation about the pandemic and vaccines, are probably behind the rise in infections and the potential rise in deaths that will follow.
"We continue to call on everyone to be vaccinated, where vaccines are available," Ghebreyesus urged. "Continue to vaccinate, test, sequence, provide early care for patients, and apply common-sense public health measures to protect health workers and the public."