Doubling the Official Count, WHO Links Pandemic to 8 Million Deaths

The global death toll is far higher than what has been officially reported, according to the World Health Organization. It says between 6 million and 8 million deaths were caused directly or indirectly by the pandemic, more than double the 3.4 million deaths officially recorded.  

(Bar graph courtesy of WHO via Courthouse News)

(CN) — The World Health Organization said on Friday that millions of deaths caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic have gone uncounted, meaning the actual death toll from the pandemic could be more than double the 3.4 million deaths so far reported.

“Based on the excess mortality estimates produced for 2020,” WHO said, “we are likely facing a significant undercount of total deaths directly and indirectly attributed to Covid-19.”

The United Nations health agency reached the figure after analyzing excess mortality data for 2020 in the Americas and Europe, the two regions hit the hardest by the pandemic. It says these preliminary estimates show that the pandemic’s global death in 2020 is at least 3 million, nearly 66% higher than the initial figure of 1.8 million.

But data is still lacking for other regions, including parts of the Middle East where major outbreaks took place, such as in Iran.

A WHO expert said she estimates that between 6 million and 8 million deaths can be linked the pandemic.   

“I think safely about 6 to 8 million deaths could be an estimate on a cautionary note,” said Samira Asma, who heads the agency’s data and analytics division, during a briefing, according to Reuters.

And the WHO’s estimates may be conservative. The Economist magazine last week issued an estimate that between 7.1 million and 12.7 million people have died from the virus, based on modeling it is doing on excess mortality rates. The magazine has experts helping it do the modeling, including Ariel Karlinsky, a statistician at the Kohelet Economic Forum, an Israeli think-tank. She leads the World Mortality Dataset, a project that track deaths worldwide.  

The Economist reported that most of the uncounted deaths have taken place in low- and middle-income countries. The magazine’s central estimate puts the pandemic’s toll at 10.2 million people, which is three times the official numbers.

Earlier this month, the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation released its own analysis suggesting 6.9 million people have died after contracting the virus. That study’s estimates did not include deaths indirectly caused by the pandemic. It was considered the first attempt at providing an estimate on the global death toll based on excess mortality figures.

The university found that the U.S. death toll is likely about 60% higher than the official figures. About 588,548 Covid-19 deaths have been reported in the U.S., according to data tracked by Johns Hopkins University. India’s toll, the study said, was likely three times higher and Russia’s five times higher than reported.

Experts say deaths go uncounted as caused by Covid-19 because of a lack of testing to confirm the cause of death, lags in registering deaths and because many people who die at home are not listed as Covid-19 fatalities. Also, many countries still lack good civil registration and vital statistics systems capable of providing accurate information about births and deaths, the WHO said.

By examining historical baselines on mortality in the world’s regions, experts are using statistical models to arrive at what they believe is a more true death toll. Excess mortality estimates include both the number of deaths directly caused by the virus and those indirectly caused by it, such as disruptions to health services and travel, the WHO said.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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