The COVID-19 global death toll has just passed another grim milestone: more than 5 million people have now died from the disease. However, most experts agree that number is hugely underestimated and the real figures could be two to four times that.
Vaccines have hugely slowed the death rate but there are large parts of the world where vaccines haven’t reached yet, where cases are rising, and even places like Tonga, which are seeing their first-ever cases of COVID. The pandemic isn’t over yet, folks.
There are many reasons why COVID-19 figures may be wrong. Early-established COVID data dashboards like the Johns Hopkins COVID tracker show the latest data available but, as we are increasingly aware, COVID-19 was slowly making its way around the world much earlier than we realized. Without knowledge of COVID-19, cause of deaths may have been recorded as other illnesses or even unknown. This is also true of the early days of the pandemic when the staggering range of symptoms had not yet been fully comprehended and doctors were as yet unfamiliar with characteristics that make a fatal case of COVID. This means many illnesses were not correctly diagnosed and reported.
Some countries only reported COVID-19 deaths that occurred in hospitals, or those who had been tested and found positive for the virus. Other countries were so overwhelmed with fatal cases that not enough resources were available to test and determine potential pandemic deaths. That is still the case in some, particularly in large rural areas where people may have died at home. Some countries, including Russia, Brazil, and Iran have been cagey about releasing their true COVID case figures.
Back in May, the World Health Organisation (WHO) suspected that up to three times more people have died due to the virus than figures showed. Citing a report that showed by December 31, 2020, COVID had killed 1.8 million people, the WHO estimated excess deaths were more likely 3 million. By May, 3.4 million people had died and the WHO estimated the figure to be more likely 6-8 million. Hitting the 5 million deaths mark could mean in truth, 10 million people or more have died.
It will be some time before we get a bigger, better picture of the true figures. One of the ways to work this out is by looking at countries' "excess" deaths. These are deaths over a certain period of time that are above the average baseline mortality rate. The pandemic likely increased the number of deaths from other causes due to overcrowded hospitals or lack of access to medical care.
The Economist, which has a running tally of estimated excess deaths from COVID-19, updated the figures today as between 10 and 19 million deaths. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) based at the University of Washington currently estimates 12 million. However, this is still not a failsafe method for true numbers. It could take years for those.
The multiple efficient COVID-19 vaccines available are making headway against the pandemic, though there are still preventable hurdles to be addressed: from vaccine inequity seeing the world's richest countries hoard doses and issue boosters while the poorest nations may have to wait until 2023 to get their first shot to the anti-vaccine campaigners doing their part to prevent the halt of the spread via herd immunity. As long as those remain the case, the pandemic could continue for years.