The death toll connected directly or indirectly to COVID-19 from 2020 to 2021 is estimated to be 14.9 million people, according to new data released on Thursday. 

The findings, which were reported by the World Health Organization (WHO), describe these deaths as “excess mortality.” 

Excess mortality is considered the “difference between the number of deaths that have occurred and the number that would be expected in the absence of the pandemic,” according to the WHO press release.

These figures are considerably higher than the ones we’ve previously seen reported in connection to deaths from COVID-19 — a number that currently sits at just over 6 million worldwide.

But this report takes into account more than just deaths directly caused by COVID-19.

The WHO findings also report deaths that were caused by the pandemic’s societal impact and its effects on health systems. A death indirectly caused by COVID-19 would include a death due to a different health condition for which someone was unable to access care when the health systems were forced to use all their resources to tackle the pandemic, the press release explains.

“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,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, said. “WHO is committed to working with all countries to strengthen their health information systems to generate better data for better decisions and better outcomes.”

Data collection is an essential component to health care systems, and something that many fragile systems lack, which can make things like tracking cases, mortality, or vaccination rates difficult.

“Measurement of excess mortality is an essential component to understand the impact of the pandemic. Shifts in mortality trends provide decision-makers information to guide policies to reduce mortality and effectively prevent future crises. Because of limited investments in data systems in many countries, the true extent of excess mortality often remains hidden,” Dr. Samira Asma, assistant director-general for data, analytics, and delivery at the WHO, said

The report highlights that 20 countries account for over 80% of the excess deaths. These countries are Brazil, Colombia, Egypt, Germany, India, Indonesia, Iran, Italy, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Russia, South Africa, the UK, Turkey, Ukraine, and the US.

It also notes that India saw 4.7 million deaths attributed to COVID-19, and while that number is much higher than what the country has reported, the WHO has said that it’s important to take into account all of the deaths associated to the pandemic or the world will be unprepared when it has to face the next one.

Middle-income countries reported 81% of the deaths, with high-income countries accounting for 15%, and low-income countries for 4%. The data also notes that the death rate was higher for men than women, and more significant among older adults.

On May 12, the US, Belize, Germany, Indonesia, and Senegal will co-host the second Global COVID-19 Summit, where world leaders, philanthropists, and the private sector will have the opportunity to make new commitments to improving vaccination coverage and access to tools and treatments that are necessary for tackling COVID-19.

The new data released on Thursday further highlights the importance of committing to strengthening health care systems around the world, both because the COVID-19 pandemic has not yet come to an end, and to protect us all from future health threats. 

“Data is the foundation of our work every day to promote health, keep the world safe, and serve the vulnerable,” said Dr. Ibrahima Socé Fall, assistant director-general for emergency response at the WHO. “We know where the data gaps are, and we must collectively intensify our support to countries, so that every country has the capability to track outbreaks in real-time, ensure delivery of essential health services, and safeguard population health.”


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