WHO: true Covid death toll may be three times higher than official totals

UN health agency warns of significant undercount of deaths

World Health Organisation director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Reuters
World Health Organisation director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Reuters

The true global death toll from Covid-19 may be three times higher than official figures show, the World Health Organisation has said.

Estimates of excess mortality suggest the official tally of 3.4 million deaths is a significant undercount.

Excess mortality takes into account unreported virus deaths and other deaths linked indirectly to the pandemic, such as those caused by the strain on hospitals or the effects of lockdown.

Presenting its annual World Health Statistics report, the UN agency said total deaths from the pandemic in 2020 were at least three million, or 1.2 million more than officially reported.

It said the current tally was likely to be at least two or three times higher than the figure of 3.4 million.

"The challenge is that the reported Covid-19 death toll figure is an undercount of that full impact," WHO data analyst William Msemburi said.

"Excess mortality gives us a better picture, because it captures both of these direct and indirect effects."

Many people suffering from chronic diseases or acute illnesses have been unable to get treatment and access healthcare due to the severity of the pandemic.

The WHO said there were indications of growing suicide rates in some parts of the world after lockdowns and other measures led to worsening levels of depression.

Even in regions with relatively reliable reporting systems, undercounts were likely.

The WHO estimated 1.1 to 1.2 million excess deaths in Europe during 2020, double the 600,000 officially tallied.

Mr Msemburi said it was unclear how many of the excess deaths could be linked to the effects of Covid-19 and that the WHO was working to determine the best methods for identifying missed Covid deaths.

Samira Asma, the WHO assistant director general in charge of data, said a safe estimate was six to eight million excess pandemic-related deaths to date.

The WHO is working with countries "to understand the true human toll of the pandemic so we can be better prepared for the next emergency", she said.

Ms Asma called on countries to invest in scaling up their data and information systems. "We can only be better prepared with better data," she said.

Updated: May 21, 2021 04:38 PM

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