Coronavirus pandemic far deadlier than official count, WHO estimate suggests

The number of people who died as a result of the coronavirus pandemic by the end of last year may be nearly three times higher than previously thought, according to estimates by the World Health Organization.

The WHO calculation is based on an analysis of excess mortality, an approach used by demographers to measure the real impact of the health crisis that compares average death rates with those recorded during the pandemic.

By the close of 2021, there were 14.9mn excess deaths “associated directly or indirectly” with the pandemic recorded globally, according to the health body. There were 5.4mn officially confirmed Covid-19 deaths in 2020 and 2021, according to research project Our World in Data.

“These sobering data not only point to the impact of the pandemic but also to the need for all countries to invest in more resilient health systems that can sustain essential health services during crises, including stronger health information systems,” said WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Tedros said the WHO was working with “all countries to strengthen their health information systems to generate better data for better decisions and better outcomes”.

Just 10 countries — including India, the US and Russia — account for 68 per cent of the total excess deaths across the two-year period.

The excess mortality calculations capture deaths “due to the disease” and those “due to the pandemic’s impact on health systems and society”, the WHO added.

A similar estimate from researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, published in the Lancet in March, put the number of excess deaths at 18mn by the end of 2021. An analysis by The Economist estimates there have been 21.3mn excess deaths to date.

The range of the WHO estimate is from 13.3mn excess deaths in 2020 and 2021 to 16.6mn. The global health body used a combination of national death records and statistical modelling to produce the estimate.

Samira Asma, the WHO’s assistant director-general for data, analytics and delivery for impact, said excess mortality was “an essential component to understand the impact of the pandemic”.

“Because of limited investments in data systems in many countries, the true extent of excess mortality often remains hidden,” added Asma, stressing that the WHO used “a robust methodology and a completely transparent approach”.

“Data is the foundation of our work every day to promote health, keep the world safe and serve the vulnerable,” said Ibrahima Socé Fall, assistant director-general of emergency response at the WHO.

“We know where the data gaps are, and we must collectively intensify our support to countries, so that every country has the capability to track outbreaks in real time, ensure delivery of essential health services, and safeguard population health,” he added.

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