WHO: Pandemic Deaths Two to Three Times Higher Than Official Total

Jagdish Chand Sharma shows a photograph of his late wife, Anita sharma, who died from COVID-19, in the city of Amritsar in northwestern India on May 21. Photo: Narinder Nanu/AFP via Getty Images

The assistant director of the World Health Organization’s data division, Dr. Samira Asma, told reporters on Friday that as many as 6 to 8 million people have died from the coronavirus and its effects — or two to three times the 3.4 million deaths that have been officially tallied by countries worldwide. The organization, which released the new estimates in its World Health Statistics 2021 report, blamed the undercount, as many other experts have, on the lack of pre-death COVID testing and reliable tracking systems in most countries.

Two weeks ago, scientists at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimated that 6.93 million had perished from COVID-19 worldwide (as of early May), but the IHME’s count was only an estimate of the number of people who died directly of COVID, whereas the WHO estimate also includes indirect “excess” deaths that occurred as a result of the pandemic, like when people are unable to obtain access to emergency health care because of COVID-linked disruptions. Per the New York Times:

The W.H.O. based its assessment on a statistical model that estimates the excess deaths attributable to COVID-19. The technique involves taking the total number of officially recorded deaths and then subtracting the number of deaths that would have been expected on the basis of previous mortality trends if the pandemic had not occurred.

On that basis, the W.H.O. said it estimated that 1.1 million to 1.3 million people in 53 European countries died from COVID-19 in 2020, roughly double the number recorded in official data. The organization also calculates that, over the same period, 1.3 million to 1.5 million people died in 35 countries in the Americas, compared with the 900,000 deaths officially recorded.

Meanwhile, even estimating the number of excess deaths globally remains difficult: The WHO’s new report noted that because of “significant data gaps” in several regions of the world, in which many member states have not recorded enough data to calculate excess mortality from last year, it had to extrapolate a global total using excess death data from the Americas and Europe.

While the overall pandemic picture continues to look better in the U.S., many other parts of the world where vaccination rates remain low continue to fare poorly:

Illustration: Our World In Data/John Hopkins University CSSE/

And though there have been signs of a slight downturn in the number of new infections in India, where one of the pandemic’s worst outbreaks has ravaged the country over the past few months — the nation set a new world record in the number of daily reported deaths earlier this week, and that is only based on its official numbers, which are definitely an undercount.

WHO: Global Pandemic Death Toll 2 to 3 Times Reported Total