WHO says COVID claimed nearly 15 million lives globally. Thrice the official count?

Estimate comes from calculating 'excess mortality' during 2020-2021.
Ameya Paleja

The World Health Organization (WHO) has pegged the global death toll of the COVID-19 pandemic at 14.9 million, nearly three times the official count. The global health agency published its findings in a press release recently. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, WHO was criticized for not acting quickly enough on the initial outbreak. After that, the agency has run a tight ship, spotting and warning about highly transmissible variants and pushing for vaccinations across the world. Two years into the pandemic, the agency is now trying to reach a realistic estimate of the human lives claimed by the disease since mortality surveillance is lacking in many countries.

Measuring excess mortality

To do so, the health agency has relied on a metric called excessive mortality, which stands for the difference between deaths that have occurred during the pandemic years and the expected number of deaths in the absence of the pandemic. The latter number is derived from the record of deaths from previous years. 

This number includes deaths caused due to COVID-19 infection and complications thereafter (direct deaths) and those caused by the impact of the pandemic on healthcare systems (indirect deaths). One might remember how hospitals were overwhelmed by COVID cases in the first wave that saw many being denied treatments.

How were the numbers derived? 

The numbers were derived by a global collaborative effort under the banner of the Technical Advisory Group for COVID-19 Mortality Assessment. The group was covered jointly by the WHO and the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs and consisted of the world's leading experts. 

Since many countries lack death surveillance data or were unable to provide reliable, the group used an innovative methodology to arrive at these number estimates, even when data was incomplete or unavailable. WHO has put the methodology in the public domain and encouraged countries to generate their own data or update their estimates. 

Where was excess mortality seen? 

84 percent of excessive mortality was seen in Southeast Asia, Europe, and the Americas. 68 percent of this excessive death happened in 10 countries, with middle-income countries accounting for 81 percent of these numbers. 

At 57 percent of the total numbers, the global death toll was also higher for males and included a higher number of older adults. 

"Measurement of excess mortality is an essential component to understand the impact of the pandemic," said Dr. Samira Asma, Assistant Director-General for Data, Analytics and Delivery at WHO. "Shifts in mortality trends provide decision-makers information to guide policies to reduce mortality and effectively prevent future crises."

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