As the official toll increases, the true figure of COVID death is elusive


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Although the official death toll from COVID-19 has exceeded 3.4 million worldwide, experts say this is certainly an understatement.

But for how much? And how can we know for sure pandemic toll?

Scientists are working tirelessly to try to find an answer to this question, which if found would be crucial in assessing the historical impact of COVID-19, not to mention the lessons to be learned for the next global killer.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday that it is estimated that 6-8 million people are likely to have died as a result of COVID-19.

In a study earlier this month, the Seattle-based Institute for Health Measurement and Assessment (IHME) used various modeling techniques to estimate that a total of 6.9 million people were die of COVID-19 as of March 2020, more than double the official toll.

The IHME estimated that the United States had recorded 912,000 deaths from COVID-19, compared to the official total of about 578,000.

The figure for India (736,000 deaths) was almost three times higher than the official death toll of COVID-19 there, IHME found.

According to the study, Mexico had recorded 621,000 deaths from COVID-19, Brazil 616,000 and Russia 600,000, a toll well above the official figure of 111,000 deaths.

“In some countries, the lowest levels of reporting are due to low levels of COVID-19 testing, this would be the case in Mexico or India,” IHME director Chris told AFP. Murray.

In others, “there may be some official policy that is very restrictive in defining a death by COVID,” he said.

“These huge corrections to official numbers are critical to understanding where the pandemic has had the biggest effect,” Murray added.

“For the future, it will be very important for us to understand which countries have the highest death rates and whether or not the government’s policy responses mitigated the impacts of the pandemic.”


Several countries have been accused of deliberately reporting deaths from COVID-19, most recently India, where the pandemic is still raging.

RP Singh, national spokesman for the ruling BJP party, said it was possible that local health services were missing some COVID-19 cases, but insisted that “there is no lower number in India”.

While the results of the IHME are staggering, they have not been universally accepted by experts.

“The model is based on a number of assumptions that may be reasonable globally, but do not always apply. “Steven Woolf, director emeritus and senior advisor at the Center for Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth Medical University, told AFP.

In the United States, Woolf said the IHME’s death toll in excess of 900,000 was “reasonable,” but questioned whether it was all directly due to COVID.

Woolf-supervised research has previously shown that about 70 percent of all excess deaths in the U.S. by 2020 could be attributed to COVID-19.

Separating deaths from COVID-19 and deaths that occurred during the pandemic from other causes (e.g., pneumonia or heart failure) is complicated.

“The direct effects of COVID need to be separated from the indirect effects,” said Stephane Helleringer, a demographer at New York University Abu Dhabi and a WHO expert advisor.

Indirect effects include deaths from other illnesses or conditions that hospitals – full to the brim with COVID-19 patients – could not treat.

The reverse must also be taken into account: how many deaths were prevented by fewer traffic accidents or by better urban air quality during closures?

“Globally, it’s extremely complicated,” Helleringer said.

When it comes to developing countries, which often do not have the infrastructure to accurately record the causes of death, the knowledge gap widens.

Malawi, for example, only records between 10 and 15 percent of the causes of death in the country, Helleringer said.

In countries like Malawi, “we are totally unable to calculate the excess deaths in real time,” Helleringer said.

‘Several years’

More or less everyone agrees that the official COVID-19 death toll in the world is an understatement.

According to Helleringer, the question is, “To what extent?”

A study published this week in the medical journal BMJ estimated that around one million excess deaths will occur in 2020 in 29 rich countries, 31% more than the official COVID-19 toll.

But, as Nazrul Islam, one of the authors of the Oxford University paper, explained, “estimates from these countries may not be extrapolated to other regions of the world.”

This research only highlights the large differences in the way countries collect data on excess mortality.

“If the question is: will we ever be able to estimate the effects globally in all countries? The answer is probably: No,” Islam told AFP.

“Because many countries and regions do not have accurate and complete data on deaths.”

Helleringer said there was still debate within the scientific community about the true death toll from the Spanish flu, which ended more than a century ago.

“This will keep demographers and epidemiologists busy for several years,” he said.

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