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OP-ED | 17-07-2021 00:24

Horrors, errors and a hundred thousand lost

Errors can always be corrected but the dead will not return.

If a triple six is the number of the beast according to the Bible, Argentina’s horrendous death toll from coronavirus reached six digits on that supreme revolutionary date of Bastille Day in midweek, less than a week after the world’s known death total from Covid-19 hit four million. Juxtaposing these data tells us that Argentina with just over 0.5 percent of the world’s population accounts for some 2.5 percent of all dead – grim statistics which do not even begin to describe the grief of those left behind.

Overpowering numbers but also relative. Tomorrow will mark the 27th anniversary of the terrorist car-bomb destruction of the AMIA Jewish community centre leaving 85 dead – not since late last year have daily Covid-19 death tolls been below that figure while last Wednesday’s six-digit total would wipe out the entire population in four provincial capitals, and yet do these numbers in any way diminish the horror of AMIA? Equally we would have to go all the way back to the start of quarantine here to find global daily coronavirus death tolls below the almost 3,000 who died in the Twin Towers terrorist attacks and yet who can doubt 9/11 as a turning-point in world history? To think otherwise would be to endorse Leopoldo Galtieri’s statistically valid but morally unacceptable argument that were less fatalities in the Malvinas war than on Argentina’s roads.

The numbers are also relative in other ways. A pandemic can be defined as a global epidemic yet only 15 of the world’s 235 countries and territories (13 of them Euro-American) account for three of the four million dead. If indeed they do – short of lending credence to such official data as only 4,636 deaths in the Chinese cradle of the virus or 3,339 deaths in Venezuela, the truth is that we do not know the real total. Nobody could accuse India of trying to hide the gravity of its pandemic crisis but there are serious reasons to believe that there could be four million dead right there. And if the doubts over the death toll cannot be removed, estimating the coronavirus caseload is a much higher level of impossibility with countless instances of entirely asymptomatic contagion.

Even the known death toll has its grey areas. Thus taking an extreme example, Argentina’s 100,000 fatalities include four women aged 106 who presumably did not have a very long life ahead of them – to these could be added many more advanced cancer cases with one foot already in the grave. Yet against these, quite apart from the Covid-19 deaths escaping record, those falling victim to other diseases neglected due to hospital saturation with the pandemic should also be factored into the equation – are they not also victims of coronavirus?

Those 100,000 deaths are sadly irreversible – what follows? In the short term the prospect is improving – the death rate is slowing (it took almost twice as long to reach the 100,000 mark from 90,000 as 90,000 from 80,000), intensive care bed occupancy is down from almost 8,000 in mid-June to just over 5,000 and vaccines are arriving. Yet we have had periods of relative calm before (70,000 of the 100,000 deaths have come in just five of the last 16 months between the two waves) – the delta and other variants could yet challenge the health system once again.

Finally, we have yet to hear any word of apology or indeed any word at all from the government on this national mega-tragedy. Partisan criticism of this disaster comes very easily but the temptation must be avoided. The famous Tolstoy quote about every unhappy family being unhappy in its own way could equally be applied to governments worldwide faced with the pandemic – ours has blundered but others too in different ways (Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Donald Trump in the United States immediately spring to mind). Yet this tragedy of errors is in no way atoned by that feeble candle ceremony three weekends ago in premature tribute to the 100,000 dead. There is too much to answer for – the initial denialism, an extreme and imbalanced quarantine wrecking the economy while shoring up the health system, the highly suspicious way early enthusiasm for the Pfizer vaccine was displaced by first AstraZeneca and then Sputnik, neither of which came through in time to avert the 40,000 deaths of the last three months, the VIP vaccine scandal, extended school closures, the thousands stranded abroad, etc. Errors can always be corrected but the dead will not return.

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