President Joe Biden says he is 'heartbroken' in address remembering 500,000 Covid dead

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Josie Ensor
·4 min read
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Two relatives hug during a funeral service for Lydia Nunez, who died of Covid-19, at the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Los Angeles - Marcio Jose Sanchez /AP
Two relatives hug during a funeral service for Lydia Nunez, who died of Covid-19, at the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Los Angeles - Marcio Jose Sanchez /AP

The US on Monday crossed the staggering milestone of 500,000 Covid-19 deaths, as President Joe Biden led a moment’s silence and lit candles for those lost.

In a solemn address to the nation, Mr Biden, who has made tackling the virus a priority for his administration, called the toll “heartbreaking” and said his heart “ached” for the dead.

"On this solemn occasion, we reflect on their loss and on their loved ones left behind," Mr Biden said in the proclamation from the White House, where he was joined by wife Jill and Kamala Harris, Vice President. "We, as a nation, must remember them so we can begin to heal, to unite, and find purpose as one nation to defeat this pandemic."

“I promise you, the day will come that their memory will bring a smile to your lips before a tear to your eye,” he continued in an emotional speech.

Bells tolled at the National Cathedral in Washington to honour the lives lost and the American flag will be flown at half-staff on public buildings for five days.

A Covid-19 victim is transported from a hospital morgue in Baltimore, Maryland - ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS /AFP
A Covid-19 victim is transported from a hospital morgue in Baltimore, Maryland - ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS /AFP

The US reached 500,159 dead as of Monday evening, according to data from John Hopkins University.

"We’ve done worse than almost any other country, and we’re a highly developed rich country," Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, said on Monday of the death toll.

When experts predicted it could reach 240,000, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases told ABC, “people were thinking we were being hyperbolic, and now here we are with a half a million deaths."

“It's nothing like we have ever been through in the last 102 years, since the 1918 influenza pandemic. It's something that is stunning when you look at the numbers, almost unbelievable, but it's true."

"It's so tough to just go back and try and, you know, do a metaphorical autopsy on how things went. It was just bad.”

The US has by far the highest death toll, with at least 500,159 lives lost, followed by Brazil with 247,143 fatalities. The UK, by comparison, has recorded more than 120,000 deaths from Covid-19.

It took four months for the US to reach the first 100,000 dead. The toll hit 200,000 deaths in September and 300,000 in December. Then it took just over a month to go from 300,000 to 400,000 and about two months to climb from 400,000 to 500,000.

The virus took a full year off the average life expectancy in the US, the biggest decline since World War Two.

However, experts were cautiously optimistic that the US might be over the worst. Covid-19 cases fell for the fifth straight week and deaths, a lagging indicator, are also beginning to ease.

More than 61 million people - some 15 per cent of the population - have received at least one shot of a vaccine in the US, with some 18 million getting the full two doses.

A drive-through mass vaccination site in Denver, Colorado - Michael Ciaglo /Getty Images North America 
A drive-through mass vaccination site in Denver, Colorado - Michael Ciaglo /Getty Images North America

Mr Biden has made it a priority to get 100 million people vaccinated within the first 100 days of his administration.

Dr Fauci warned that Americans may still need masks in 2022 even as other measures to stop the virus' spread become increasingly relaxed and more vaccines are administered, and they may also need a booster shot depending on how variants emerge.

He did not see major cause for concern with the new strains, believing the vaccines offered a good deal of protection against them.

Mr Biden said he did not want to give firm predictions of when the crisis will be curbed, but said that 600 million doses - enough to provide the two-dose regimen to most of the country - were expected to be ready by the end of July.