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How many people has COVID killed?

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Robert Adler
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The World Health Organization just published its latest study of how many excess deaths have occurred worldwide in the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Reporting in the premier science journal Nature, an international team of biostatisticians estimate approximately 14.8 million excess deaths -- deaths above and beyond those projected from pre-COVID rates -- occurred in 2021 and 2022.

That's nearly three times the 5.4 million deaths that have been officially attributed to Covid. Close to one million of those excess deaths were in the US.

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The 9.4 million difference between the 14.8 million estimated excess deaths and the 5.4 million deaths formally attributed to Covid may be explained in part by secondary impacts of the pandemic and the governmental and societal responses to it, factors such as disrupted healthcare systems, access to healthcare that was deferred or lost, unemployment, increased poverty, confinement, isolation, stress, etc.

However, the authors make it clear that of those 9.4 million deaths "the greater proportion . . . can be attributed to COVID-19 directly".

"In fact," the authors write, "where accurately quantified, excess mortality may provide a reliable lower bound on COVID-19 deaths. . . . The alternative . . . relying on reported COVID-19 deaths... represents a severe undercount of the toll." [My emphases]

The authors back up that conclusion by noting that in countries and time periods with low COVID infection and mortality rates, excess mortality was also low. And, as can be seen by comparing this graph of excess deaths in the US over the course of the pandemic with this graph of COVID deaths over the same time period, peaks in COVID infections correlate almost perfectly with peaks in excess deaths. If most excess deaths were caused by other, less specific factors such as isolation or deferred access to medical care, one would not expect COVID deaths and excess deaths to rise and fall in sync.

In other words, COVID-19 has killed far more people - many millions more worldwide - than those whose deaths have been officially attributed to COVID. The researchers describe this death toll as "staggeringly high," and note that they expect that when all the data are in, COVID will have been among the leading causes of death in 2020, and the leading cause of death worldwide in 2021.

That finding starkly contradicts the widely disseminated narratives arguing that official COVID-19 deaths have been over-counted, for example by counting "deaths with COVID" but from other conditions as "deaths from COVID." It also strongly contradicts critics of governmental mitigation efforts, who have attempted to minimize the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, often comparing it to "just another flu."

Although not its central focus, the WHO study includes data comparing the excess mortality rates from influenza epidemics with those from COVID. It reports that the rate of excess deaths per capita during the 2021 COVID year was 3.25 times higher than the 1957 influenza epidemic, 4.33 times higher than the 1969 flu and 260 times higher than the 2009 flu year. Only the notorious influenza pandemic of 1918 was deadlier; adjusted to today's population, that pandemic would have killed an estimated 75 million people.

This paper's calculation of 14.8 million excess deaths during the first two years of the COVID pandemic is not just a global estimate. It's based on a painstaking, granular, country-by-country analysis. The authors found that only 100 countries gathered reliable, month-by-month data on deaths attributed to COVID and total deaths. The remaining countries - nearly half of the total - maintained annual, partial, or in some cases no mortality records at all. For those countries, the researchers needed to use statistical models to estimate total and excess deaths from available data, for example extrapolating total excess deaths in India from the 17 of India's 36 states and territories that gathered full data. As a result, the authors caution that this report represents "a work in progress," and may be subject to revision as more data become available.

Individual countries, and the six regions that WHO groups countries into varied greatly in the relationship between reported COVID deaths and total excess deaths. Most Western European countries, for example, showed few excess death beyond those attributed to COVID. In contrast, in several South American countries excess deaths were 1.5 to 2 times higher than recorded COVID deaths. Several countries with large populations, including the US and Russia, contributed markedly to the excess death total, while the largest single addition came from India, with 4.74 million estimated excess deaths.

The authors come to four main conclusions:

  1. COVID-19 resulted in "marked global excess mortality" in 2020 and 2021, an estimated 14.83 million excess deaths.

  2. Of the two pandemic years, 2021 was far worse, accounting for 10.36 million excess deaths compared to "only" 4.47 million in 2020.

  3. Globally, excess mortality far exceeded reported deaths from COVID; worldwide, excess deaths during those two years were 2.74 times greater than recorded COVID deaths. The majority of those excess deaths were likely due to COVID.

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Robert Adler Social Media Pages: Facebook page url on login Profile not filled in       Twitter page url on login Profile not filled in       Linked In Page       Instagram Page

I'm a retired psychologist, author and freelance writer focusing on science, technology and fact-based political and social commentary.

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