The number of global deaths caused by the coronavirus-borne illness COVID-19 is likely far higher than official numbers suggest, as all countries are struggling to provide accurate statistical models and counts, the World Health Organization said Friday.
The agency’s annual “state of the world’s health” assessment presented in its World Health Statistics report for 2021, found that as of Dec. 31, 2020, the true number of global COVID deaths was at least 3 million, or 1.2 million more than the 1.8 million officially reported at the time.
The official number has since risen to 3.4 million, based on data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University, but that is also likely not accurate, said WHO.
“Based on the excess mortality estimates for 2020, the 3.4 million deaths currently reported to WHO are likely a significant undercount, with true figures at least 2-3 times higher,” said the report.
India, which is currently in the midst of a severe wave of infections, has the second-highest official case count after the U.S. at more than 26 million confirmed cases, but experts agree that number is likely vastly undercounted given a shortage of tests in many parts of the country and the overall stress on its healthcare system.
For weeks now, India COVID patients have been dying in ambulances while waiting for hospital beds and for oxygen. Officials have found bodies washing up on the banks of the Ganges River, raising concerns that poorer people who can no longer afford costly cremations are dumping bodies there.
China, where the virus was first discovered late in 2019, has had 102,822 confirmed cases and 4,846 deaths, according to its official numbers, which are widely held to be massively underreported.
China, with a population of 1.39 billion, has fewer deaths, according to its official numbers, than Ireland, with a population of just 4.9 million. Ireland’s official death toll is 4,941.
“The COVID-19 pandemic poses major threats to population health and well-being globally and hinders progress in meeting the SDGs (sustainable development goals) and WHO’s “triple billion” targets,” said the report.
The triple billion targets are an initiative to improve the health of billions of people by 2023. They are part of WHO’s Thirteenth General Program of Work, acting as both a measurement and a policy strategy.
“With 90% of countries reporting disruptions to essential health services and 3% of households spending more than 25% of their budget on healthcare in 2015, UHC (universal healthcare) is at greatest risk of falling behind,” said the report.
Outside of the pandemic, global life expectancy measured at birth climbed to 73.3 years in 2019 from 66.8 years in 2000, the report found, with health life expectancy climbing to 63.7 years from 58.3.
“Greatest gains are being made in low-income countries primarily due to rapid reductions in child mortality and communicable diseases,” said the report.
Global tobacco use has fallen 33% since 2000, but that is tempered by a rise in global obesity with up to a quarter of populations in high-income countries suffering from obesity in 2016, the report found.
Noncommunicable diseases made up 7 of 10 causes of death worldwide in 2019, said the WHO.