Skip to content

WHO dramatically raises coronavirus death figures

There have been almost 15 million deaths related to the COVID-19 pandemic — more than twice the official death toll — according to new estimates.

Flags for coronavirus victims planted in a lawn in Austin, Texas in 2021
Flags for coronavirus victims planted in a lawn in Austin, Texas in 2021 (AN/Lars Plougmann)

GENEVA (AN) — Almost 15 million deaths are related to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021 alone — more than twice the official death toll of 6.2 million — according to new estimates released by the World Health Organization on Thursday.

WHO's new 14.9 million estimate, based on a range between 13.3 million and 16.6 million, comes from factoring in the deaths of people who failed to receive adequate preventive care or treatment due to overloaded hospitals and medical clinics. Most of the "excess mortality," or 84%, came from the Americas, Europe and Southeast Asia.

“These sobering data not only point to the impact of the pandemic but also to the need for all countries to invest in more resilient health systems that can sustain essential health services during crises, including stronger health information systems,” WHO's Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. “WHO is committed to working with all countries to strengthen their health information systems to generate better data for better decisions and better outcomes.”

The figures are for the full years of 2020 and 2021, meaning they do not take in account the death toll from this year. The term "excess mortality" refers not only to the number of people who died as a direct result of COVID-19, but also to those who died indirectly from it because of how the disease has so broadly undermined nations' health systems and societal safety nets.

It is calculated by measuring the difference between the actual number of deaths that occurred in comparison with the number of deaths that would have been expected based on previous data, if there had not been a pandemic. Still other factors come into play, though, such as the incidence of fewer car crashes or workplace injuries because more people are staying at home.

'True extent' often hidden

By comparison, the Johns Hopkins University and Google data trackers, which have been a widely used source for pandemic figures, showed more than 6.2 million deaths from the coronavirus as of Thursday. They also showed 515,000 million cases of infection since the pandemic began in early 2020, and 11.3 billion vaccine doses administered.

In the WHO tallies, just 10 nations accounted for a little more than two-thirds of the "excess deaths." About half were in lower middle-income nations; a bit more than a quarter were in upper middle-income nations. The rest were mostly in high-income nations.

By gender, the excess mortality was 57% male, 43% female. WHO officials said the new figures, prepared as part of a global collaboration that includes the U.N.'s Department of Economic and Social Affairs, or DESA, paint a more objective picture of the pandemic.

“Measurement of excess mortality is an essential component to understand the impact of the pandemic. Shifts in mortality trends provide decision-makers information to guide policies to reduce mortality and effectively prevent future crises," said WHO Assistant Director-General Samira Asma, who oversees data and analytics. "Because of limited investments in data systems in many countries, the true extent of excess mortality often remains hidden."

Stefan Schweinfest, director of DESA's statistics division, said the pandemic has shown the need for nations to do more to support and improve coordination of their data systems, and that data deficiencies can obscure the "true scope of a crisis, with serious consequences for people’s lives."