Official death tolls from the coronavirus pandemic are probably a “significant undercount” and the true number of fatalities could be “two to three times higher,” the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) said Friday.
Since the current official W.H.O. projection of deaths worldwide is about 3.4 million, “6 to 8 million deaths could be an estimate on a cautionary note,” W.H.O. Assistant Director-General for data and analytics Dr. Samira Asma said.
Asma noted her organization’s current working estimate of fatalities is about 1.2 million higher than a tally of official reports from all nations. W.H.O. data analyst William Msemburi said the higher 3.4 million figure includes both an estimate of unreported coronavirus deaths and “indirect deaths,” such as those resulting from patients not receiving care for other ailments because the pandemic overwhelmed hospitals, or lockdowns restricted their ability to access medical facilities.
Msemburi contended that even countries with relatively reliable and transparent reporting of coronavirus deaths tended to underestimate indirect deaths and “excess mortality.”
Asma called upon all nations to “improve and invest in strong data and health information systems” so health crises such as the Chinese coronavirus pandemic can be more accurately monitored. W.H.O. Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made a similar recommendation Thursday when the organization published its latest estimates of excess mortality.
“All countries must have the necessary capacity and resources to accurately collect and use health data even in the midst of an ongoing crisis. The Covid-19 [Chinese coronavirus] pandemic has shown the importance of data and science to build back more resilient health systems and equitably accelerate towards our shared global goals,” Tedros said.
The comments from Asma and Msemburi, offered as W.H.O. presented its annual World Health Statistics Report, tread lightly upon the notion that some regimes are deliberately lying about how many coronavirus cases and deaths they have experienced.
The implication, as summarized by the New York Times (NYT), was that the “huge discrepancy between the W.H.O.’s estimates and official data underscores the limited capacity of many countries to test their populations for the coronavirus and other weaknesses in official health data” rather than deliberate falsification, and the solution is to spend more money on reporting systems.
“The W.H.O. will present its statistics to the annual meeting of its policymaking assembly in Geneva next week. The numbers will help make the case for countries to invest urgently in bolstering data systems and their capacity to monitor and report health developments,” the NYT reported.