Nearly 15 million more people died worldwide in 2020 and 2021 than would normally be expected, the World Health Organization said Thursday in an analysis of excess deaths that are linked to the COVID-19 crisis and its ripple effects.
The number is far higher than the 6.2 million deaths attributed directly to the virus and nearly three times the 5.4 million reported during the study’s time frame, indicating that many countries likely underreported the impact of COVID-19 on their people.
“Because of limited investments in data systems in many countries, the true extent of excess mortality often remains hidden,” said Dr. Samira Asma, assistant director-general for data, analytics and delivery at WHO.
About a third of the excess deaths, or 4.7 million, were from India, a figure that is about 10 times the official estimates of 481,000 COVID-19 deaths as the Indian government and WHO spar over methodology.
The U.S. is expected to hit an official count of 1 million virus deaths in the coming weeks, as infections surge, hospitalizations inch up and deaths are projected to rise again.
The WHO defined excess mortality as the difference between the number of deaths that have occurred and the number that would be expected in the absence of the pandemic, using data from prior years.
It looked at deaths caused directly by the virus and those that resulted indirectly, such as due to a lack of medical care because of pandemic disruptions. More than 80% of the excess deaths were in Southeast Asia, Europe and the Americas.
Getting a full picture of the pandemic’s toll has been difficult.
Different countries may have used different metrics for what counts as a COVID-19 death and some countries have been accused of trying to hide unflattering death tolls. Poorer nations might have struggled to document deaths.
WHO’s excess death number for Egypt was 12 times higher than the nation’s official COVID-19 tally, eight times higher in Pakistan, seven times higher in Indonesia and 3.5 times higher in Russia.
The WHO has been working on its analysis throughout the pandemic.
The Indian government this week suddenly released figures showing about 474,806 more deaths in 2020, compared to the previous year, though WHO figures suggest those figures do not account for the debilitating wave in mid-2021 due to the delta variant.
WHO officials say getting an accurate picture of mortality is an important step in tailoring pandemic responses, so it is not just a mathematical exercise.
“Measurement of excess mortality is an essential component to understand the impact of the pandemic,” Dr. Asma said. “Shifts in mortality trends provide decision-makers information to guide policies to reduce mortality and effectively prevent future crises.”
The WHO study also looked at excess deaths relative to a country’s population size.
Peru had an unusually high number, at 437 excess deaths per 100,000; Russia had 367, the U.S. 140, Germany 116 and the U.K. 111.
For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.