Deaths due to COVID-19 much higher than reported: WHO

At least 90% countries reported one or more disruptions to essential health services during the pandemic, the World Health Statistics report states

By Anshika Ravi
Published: Friday 21 May 2021
Deaths due to COVID-19 much higher than reported, says WHO. Photo: Flickr

The total number of global deaths attributable to the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in 2020 was at least three million — 1.2 million more than the 1.8 million officially reported for that year, preliminary estimates by the World Health Organization state. 

The estimates were published in the World Health Statistics report, 2021, released May 21. The report presents the latest data on more than 50 health-related Sustainable Development Goals and ‘triple billion’ target indicators. It includes preliminary estimates for global excess deaths attributable to COVID-19 for 2020 as well as the state of global and regional health trends from 2000-2019. 

Excess mortality is defined as the difference in the total number of deaths in a crisis compared to those expected under normal conditions. COVID-19 excess mortality accounts for both the total number of deaths directly attributed to the virus as well as the indirect impact, such as disruption to essential health services or travel disruptions.

The preliminary assessments of excess mortality estimated 1.34-1.46 million excess deaths in the Region of the Americas during 2020, about 60 per cent more than the reported 860,000 COVID-19 deaths. Likewise, 1.11-1.21 million excess deaths are estimated for the European Region, double the 590,000 reported COVID-19 deaths.

“Underreporting of infections, and by extension, deaths is equally true for India. By what degree or measure needs to be ascertained. The second wave of COVID-19 is deadlier, so comapred to 2020 excess deaths would be more in 2021,” said Anant Bhan, a public health expert.   

There were persistent disruptions at a considerable scale over one year into the pandemic, with 90 per cent countries reporting one or more disruptions to essential health services, the report noted.  

Case load

Of the 23.1 million cases reported in the South-East Asia Region as of May 1, 2021, over 86 per cent were attributed to India. Almost half (48 per cent) of all reported COVID-19-associated deaths have occurred in the Region of the Americas, and one third in the European Region.

Yet, COVID-19 appear to be concentrated predominantly in high-income countries. The 20 most impacted HICs account for almost half (45 per cent) of the world’s COVID-19 cases, when they represent only an eighth (12.4 per cent) of the global population, as of May 1, 2021.

Among other findings of the report were: 

  • Global life expectancy at birth was up from 66.8 years in 2000 to 73.3 years in 2019, with healthy life expectancy up from 58.3 to 63.7 years. Greatest gains are being made in low-income countries primarily due to rapid reductions in child mortality and communicable diseases.
  • Global tobacco use is down by 33 per cent since 2000, but adult obesity is on the rise with up to a quarter of populations in high-income countries obese in 2016. Noncommunicable diseases made up seven of 10 causes of death worldwide in 2019.

Sluggish pace of vaccination

Fair and equitable access to vaccines, according to the report, remained a huge challenge.  

According to the report:

Fair and equitable access to the vaccines was far from being achieved, and the inequality across income groups is pronounced with only 1 per cent of doses going to low-income countries as compared to the 19 per cent administered in lower -middle-income countries, 33 per cent in upper -middle-income countries and 47 per cent in high-income countries as of 1 May, 2021.

Just over a billion COVID-19 vaccine doses had been administered globally, as on May 1. The highest number of doses has been administered in the Region of the Americas (33 per cent) followed by the European Region and Western Pacific Region (23 and 22 per cent, respectively). 

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