The global COVID death toll might be way higher than we thought

New research reveals a scary new estimate of how many people we lost to the pandemic.

Tanyaporn Nakornchai / EyeEm/EyeEm/Getty Images
The Pandemic

As COVID restrictions across the U.S. continue to relax, it’s worth taking stock of the devastation that the virus has caused across the world. Because of the long-term effects of COVID and faulty reporting by some governments, it turns out that global deaths from the pandemic might actually be up to three times higher than official reports, according to a new analysis published in The Lancet.

The analysis claims that up to 18.2 million people might have died from COVID by December 31, 2021, which is astronomically more than the 5.9 million deaths recorded by the World Health Organization. The researchers based their assessment on excess deaths, which is the difference between total deaths from year to year and the expected number of deaths based on previous, non-pandemic years. By looking at data from 11 years leading up to the pandemic, the researchers found that on average, excess deaths increased significantly in many countries, with some reporting as many as 300 more deaths than usual per 100,000 people.

Not all parts of the world suffered equally, of course. The highest rates of excess deaths were recorded in South America, Eastern and Central Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa. The Southern part of the U.S. also had much higher rates of excess deaths than the rest of the country and in regions like South Asia, deaths were severely underreported by local governments. The analysis attributed some of these discrepancies to lack of testing and inaccurate data.

This analysis was far from perfect — Even though a majority of excess deaths in the past three years probably happened because of COVID, rates of drug overdoses and suicides also increased significantly. Still, having a more accurate death toll is important because it illustrates where our governments failed and allows us to acknowledge the true damage that the virus caused so that resources can be poured into the places that need it most. At the end of the day, this is a grim but necessary picture of the sort of devastation we’ll continue to grapple with for years to come.