- The Washington Times
Thursday, May 5, 2022

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.

“Excess mortality is a good measure to control for differences in reporting to understand the true impact of a pandemic,” said Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “Pandemics have major cascading impacts including on non-pathogen related issues as health care systems get severely disrupted and peoples’ lives change dramatically.”

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 numbers suggest those figures do not account for the debilitating wave in mid-2021 due to the delta variant.

“India has vastly under-reported its COVID-19 deaths. This has hidden both COVID deaths in India but also skewed figures globally because India is such a large country,” said Lawrence O. Gostin, a global health law professor at Georgetown University.

Mr. Gostin said getting an accurate picture of mortality is an important step in tailoring pandemic responses, so it is not just a mathematical exercise.

“Good data is essential for understanding the magnitude of the pandemic, and where it may be heading. It also helps us target our interventions better, which is more effective and saves resources,” he said. “It tells us who is most at risk, whether there are geographic areas or populations that have been unequally affected, and much more. Without good data, we are fighting the pandemic blind.”

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.

The U.S. and other countries are trying to treat the virus as a manageable problem, though the pathogen is making things difficult.

Daily cases in the U.S. have risen to 65,000 per day, on average — more than a 50% increase from two weeks ago — and hospitalizations are up 20% over that period. 

Deaths dove down to 300 per day but recently ticked upward, to a daily average of 375.

Scientists say the latest surge is driven by a fast-moving sub-lineage of omicron known as BA.2.12.1. It was first detected in New York state.

Several attendees at last week’s White House Correspondents Association dinner in Washington, including Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, tested positive this week.

For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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