The pandemic’s excess mortality rates

WHO Covid-19 mortality assessment focusing on a time period of two years is 14.91 million


Syed Mohammad Ali May 13, 2022
The writer is an academic and researcher. He is also the author of Development, Poverty, and Power in Pakistan, available from Routledge

The Covid-19 pandemic is not yet over. Many countries around the world, including Pakistan, are now reporting new cases of the highly infectious even if less deadly Omicron sub-variant. Despite all the efforts being made to track this still unfolding pandemic, there is an evident discrepancy concerning the number of deaths which have been caused by it.

The World Health Organization has just released a comprehensive assessment of global deaths caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, which are far higher than earlier official estimates. The WHO has used the notion of ‘excess mortality’ for its latest estimation. Excess mortality is defined as the difference between the total number of global deaths and the number of deaths that would have been expected if there had been no pandemic.

The excess mortality rate includes deaths attributed directly to Covid-19 that were reported to the WHO by individual countries, as well as deaths attributable directly to Covid-19 which were either not counted, or else, were not reported to the WHO. The WHO’s latest estimation tries to not only include unreported deaths caused by Covid-19, but also deaths triggered by underlying medical conditions complicated by the pandemic, as well as deaths caused due to other health problems that remain untreated due to the pandemic. The WHO’s latest estimation even takes account of deaths which did not occur because of Covid-19 restrictions, such as reduced traffic accidents, or due to lesser prevalence of infectious diseases as a byproduct of social mobility restrictions.

This new WHO Covid-19 mortality assessment focusing on a time period of two years (from January 2020 to December 2021) is 14.91 million. This number implies that there is a nearly three times higher Covid-19 related death toll than was earlier reported.

Pakistan and India are amongst 20 countries where over 80% of the estimated global excess mortality occurred. However, Pakistan is not in the list of the top 10 countries where approximately 68% of the excess deaths took place. This latter list includes populous mid-income countries like Brazil, India, Indonesia as well as more powerful ones, such as Russia and the US. In the US alone, the pandemic has caused nearly a million deaths.

Pakistan has been touting its Covid-19 response, and it also won international praise for its swift and nuanced approach in contending with the pandemic despite its meager resources. To date, Pakistan has reported around 30,000 deaths to the WHO. Yet, this latest WHO estimation indicates that the actual mortality figures for the country are eight times higher.

The situation in India is even more alarming. The Indian government reported around 481,000 Covid-19 related deaths till the end of 2021, whereas the WHO estimates that 4.7 million Indians have died due to the pandemic during this same period. The Indian government is trying hard to contest the WHO estimates, which is understandable given that India has been singled out as the country where nearly a third of the Covid-19 related excess deaths are said to have taken place.

While powerful countries like Russia and the US have also not been able to accurately track Covid-19 related deaths, this latest WHO assessment relevels that the pandemic’s true impact has still been borne by poorer countries. Nearly 8 million additional people have died in lower-middle-income nations than had been previously estimated.

The scale, scope and speed of the Covid-19 pandemic came as a big surprise for the whole world. Despite all the efforts taken to monitor the pandemic, national estimations seemed to have been way off the mark. This wide gap between the pandemic’s excess mortality rates and earlier reported mortality rates reflects not only a lack of capacity to collect mortality data but perhaps an intentional effort to obscure the actual toll of the pandemic. The evident inability and unwillingness of national authorities to accurately monitor the pandemic is troubling news. The WHO’s Assistant Director General responsible for data and analytics has rightly pointed out that undercounting the scale of the pandemic will lead to an underestimation and underinvestment in building mechanisms and capabilities needed to mitigate against future pandemics.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 13th, 2022.

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