WHO puts global COVID-19 death toll at nearly 15 million

New report by UN health agency says coronavirus pandemic killed nearly three times more people than officially reported.

People wearing personal protective equipment are seen burying a relative in New Delhi, India
Nearly 50 percent of the deaths that until now had not been counted were in India, WHO's report said [File: Sheikh Saaliq/AP]

Nearly three times as many people have died as a result of COVID-19 as official data indicates, according to a new World Health Organization (WHO) report that offers the most comprehensive look yet at the true global toll of the pandemic.

There were 14.9 million excess deaths associated with COVID-19 by the end of 2021, the UN body said on Thursday. The official count of deaths directly attributable to COVID-19 and reported to WHO in that period, from January 2020 to the end of December 2021, is slightly more than 5.4 million.

Nearly 50 percent of the deaths that until now had not been counted were in India, WHO said, where 4.7 million people were reported to have died as a result of the pandemic – a tally 10 times higher than the country’s own official figure and almost a third of the global total.

Excess mortality is calculated as the difference between the number of deaths that have occurred and the number that would have been expected in the absence of the pandemic, based on data from earlier years.

The WHO’s figures reflect people who died because of COVID-19 directly and indirectly due to the pandemic’s wider effect on health systems and society, such as those who could not access healthcare for other conditions when systems were overwhelmed during huge waves of infection.

Obtaining accurate numbers on COVID-19 deaths worldwide has been problematic throughout the pandemic largely because of limited testing and differences in how governments collate such data.

Even pre-pandemic, about six in 10 deaths around the world were not registered, WHO said.

“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 Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.

The WHO panel, made up of international experts who have been working on the data for months, used a combination of national and local information, as well as statistical models, to estimate totals where the data is incomplete.

Other models have also reached similar conclusions about the global death toll being far higher than the recorded statistics.

Scientists at the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington estimated there were more than 18 million COVID deaths from January 2020 to December 2021 in a recent study published in The Lancet medical journal.

For comparison, about 50 million people are thought to have died in the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, and 36 million have died of HIV since the epidemic began in the 1980s.

Dr Bharat Pankhania, a public health specialist at the United Kingdom’s University of Exeter, said there may never be a true toll of the devastation wreaked by COVID-19, particularly in poorer countries.

“When you have a massive outbreak where people are dying in the streets because of a lack of oxygen, bodies were abandoned or people had to be cremated quickly because of cultural beliefs, we end up never knowing just how many people died,” he told The Associated Press news agency.

He added that although the currently estimated COVID-19 death toll pales in comparison with the tally from the Spanish Flu, the fact that so many people died despite the advances of modern medicine, including vaccines, is shameful.

He also warned the cost of COVID-19 could be far more damaging in the long term, given the increasing burden of long COVID.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies