US President Joseph Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris with their spouses during a moment of silence on Feb 22, 2021.
WASHINGTON (REUTERS) – US President Joe Biden led Americans in observing a moment of silence on Monday (Feb 22) to commemorate the grim milestone of 500,000 US deaths from Covid-19, urging Americans to set aside partisan differences and fight the pandemic together.
“Today we mark a truly grim, heartbreaking milestone – 500,071 dead. That’s more Americans who have died in one year in this pandemic than in World War One, World War Two and the Vietnam War combined,” Mr Biden said in emotional remarks at the White House.
“But as we acknowledge the scale of this mass death in America, we remember each person and the life they lived. They’re people we knew.”
Mr Biden, Vice-President Kamala Harris, first lady Jill Biden and second gentleman Doug Emhoff marked a moment of silence around 6.15pm (7.15am Tuesday Singapore time) outdoors at the White House after the President’s remarks, bowing their heads somberly.
“As a nation, we can’t accept such a cruel fate. While we’ve been fighting this pandemic for so long, we have to resist becoming numb to sorrow,” Mr Biden said.
Five hundred lit candles lined the White House steps to commemorate the dead and a military band played a soaring rendition of Amazing Grace.
Mr Biden ordered that all flags on federal properties and military facilities be lowered to half-staff until Friday at sunset to commemorate the dead.
The President called on Americans to remain vigilant in fighting the pandemic by continuing to wear masks, observe social distancing and receive vaccinations when it is their turn.
“We must end the politics and misinformation that has divided families, communities and the country, and has cost too many lives already. It’s not Democrats and Republicans who are dying from the virus. It’s our fellow Americans,” Mr Biden said.
“We have to fight this together as one people, as the United States of America.”
About 19 per cent of total global coronavirus deaths have occurred in the United States, an outsized figure given that the nation accounts for just 4 per cent of the world’s population.
The country has the highest overall death figure, reflecting the lack of a unified, national response last year, when the administration of former President Donald Trump mostly left states to their own devices in tackling the greatest public health crisis in a century.
Mr Biden, a Democrat, took office on Jan 20 after defeating Trump, a Republican, in the 2020 presidential election, in part by arguing he would do a better job of addressing the pandemic.
Mr Trump downplayed the pandemic in its early stages and repeatedly predicted rosier numbers about the expected death toll in the United States than came to fruition.
More people have died in the United States due to Covid-19 than any other country in the world.
US President Joseph Biden and First Lady Jill Biden outside the White House during a moment of silence in Washington on Feb 22, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
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With 4 per cent of the world’s population, the United States has 20 per cent of all Covid deaths and one of the highest rates of deaths per 100,000 residents, exceeded by only a few countries such as Belgium, the United Kingdom and Italy.
Unlike many countries around the world that had national lockdowns and mask mandates, former US President Donald Trump left public health decisions to state and local governments, resulting in a patchwork of rules that often contradicted the advice of doctors and health officials.
Following many mask-less year-end holiday gatherings, January became the deadliest month of the pandemic so far with an average of 3,000 people dying every day.
With total deaths above 500,000, one in every 673 US residents has succumbed to the pandemic. Global deaths have reached 2.57 million or one out of every 3,000 people on the planet.
The United States has reported over 28 million cases to date, about 25 per cent of all global infections. After peaking at nearly 300,000 new cases in a single day on Jan 8, the United States is now reporting about 70,000 new infections each day.
However, new variants of the virus threaten to disrupt the path to normalcy.
Officials have also warned that most of these cases are from a more transmissible variant first discovered in the United Kingdom called B117, which could become the dominant variant in the US by March.
Health officials are also worried about a variant first identified in South Africa called 501Y.V2, which has multiple mutations in the important “spike” protein that current vaccines are targeting.
Vaccinations: a silver lining
About 15 per cent of the US population has received at least one vaccine dose so far and more than 63 million doses have been administered, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At the current rate, the United States would take more than nine months or until the end of November this year to vaccinate 75 per cent of the country’s population. Even if the current rate doubled, it would still take until early July to vaccinate 75 per cent of residents.
In early February, the Biden administration said it is exploring options for increasing manufacturing of Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine which is one shot and can be stored in a refrigerator. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna Inc vaccines both require two doses and the Pfizer vaccine requires special freezers.
Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine is under review by the US health regulator, and a panel of the Food and Drug Administration’s experts are expected to discuss the vaccine’s emergency use authorisation this week.
However, President Biden said in early February that it will be difficult for the United States to reach herd immunity, at least 75 per cent of the population inoculated, by the end of this summer.
Vaccine rollout has been challenging as the Trump administration left it up to states to design and implement their own rollout plans. The United States also lacks a national healthcare system and often relies on grocery stores and drug store chains to provide immunisations.
This has led to a growing disparity among states on vaccination progress, including that Blacks and Hispanics are lagging in getting inoculations. In many parts of the country, long lines and hours of waiting was not an uncommon sight.
White House officials said last week that the country has a backlog of 6 million Covid-19 vaccine doses due to inclement weather that swept much of the United States.
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