Worldwide, 18.2 million people have already died from Covid-19. That is the conclusion of a new study published in the renowned scientific journal The Lancet. It is the first study into the true global death toll from the coronavirus that has been assessed by fellow experts.
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The estimate by researchers from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington is based on excess mortality rates from nearly 200 countries in 2020 and 2021. The final figure of 18.2 million corona deaths is three times higher than the official figures.
Excess mortality is considered the best method to estimate the true death toll. Excess mortality means that more people have died in a given period than in a comparison period. Years are often compared. For example, fewer people died in our country in 2019 than in 2020, which means that there will be excess mortality in the year 2020. This comparison applies because the number of deaths on an annual basis in a country is generally remarkably stable. For example, researchers can investigate the influence of natural disasters or wars on death rates.
Last year, another study estimated that the first corona year probably had more than twice as many deaths from Covid-19 than the official figures. The current University of Washington study is the most thorough yet on the pandemic. The scientists collected weekly or monthly data on all-cause deaths in 2020 and 2021 in 74 countries and 266 states or provinces. They also collected data for the 11 years prior to the pandemic. Based on that data, they set up models to estimate excess mortality in 191 countries and areas. This resulted in 18.2 million more deaths than otherwise worldwide between January 2020 and December 2021. That number is far from the official number of corona deaths of 5.9 million over the same time frame.
Haidong Wang, lead author of the study, emphasizes that those 18.2 million deaths are not a direct approximation of the number of Covid-19 deaths. Part of the excess mortality is likely due to an indirect link to the corona pandemic, such as delays in access to regular health care. However, Wang notes that studies on countries with strong mortality reporting indicate that most of the excess mortality is directly attributable to Covid-19. He cites research from Belgium and Sweden. But there is not yet sufficient evidence for most countries, he said. “Further research will have to reveal how many deaths were directly caused by Covid-19 and how many were an indirect result of the pandemic.”
The differences between countries can be large. Bolivia is estimated to have one of the highest excess mortality rates with 734 additional deaths per 100,000 people. Other countries with high excess mortality are Bulgaria (647 per 100,000), Peru (528), Eswatini (634) and Lesotho (562). Belgium has an excess mortality of 146 deaths per 100,000.
In absolute figures, India is at the top with 4.07 million deaths more than usual. The United States follows with an additional 1.13 million deaths. The study lists five more countries with excess mortality rates of more than 500,000: Russia (1.07 million), Mexico (798,000), Brazil (792,000), Indonesia (736,000) and Pakistan (664,000).
Some countries even recorded an under-mortality. This mainly concerns countries that have pursued a zero-Covid policy and have managed to keep the virus out fairly effectively over the past two years. Singapore had 16 fewer deaths per 100,000 than ‘normal’, Australia 38 and Iceland 48. The researchers explain this by a decrease in deaths “from diseases and injuries for which exposure to related risks has been reduced during the pandemic”. Just as we did not have a flu outbreak in our country in the flu season of 2020.
The conclusion of the study is that the death toll from Covid-19 has been seriously underestimated in the last two years. The scientists even see the corona pandemic as “possibly a main cause of death in 2020 and 2021”. They therefore advocate stronger monitoring systems worldwide to better track the impact of future pandemics in real time.
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