Massive undercounting of global coronavirus deaths, according to new analysis

Business Insider US

A volunteer marks coffins at a mosque in Birmingham, UK, which is operating a temporary morgue during the coronavirus pandemic. (Getty)

  • The global coronavirus death toll could be significantly higher than official tallies, a new analysis from the Financial Times found.
  • The FT calculated a new metric for deaths from the virus, by comparing how many more deaths - from any cause - took place in early 2020 than in a normal year.
  • This gives a picture of the scale of the pandemic that doesn't rely on virus-specific data from national health authorities, which is likely undercounting.
  • The global death toll could be as much as 60% higher, according to the FT.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

A new analysis of the coronavirus death toll across 14 countries found the official death tolls are likely massively undercounting the true scale of the pandemic.

The Financial Times studied the number of deaths that occured in week-long periods across 14 countries in March and April.

It then compared that figure to the average for the same period between 2015 and 2019, before the pandemic. It concluded that the difference between the two is a reasonable estimate of how many extra deaths the pandemic had caused.

The FT found that the death toll calculated this way was more than 60% higher than adding up various countries' official death tolls.

The newspaper reported a total of 122,000 deaths from this method, compared with 77,000 going from official numbers.

It has long been clear that official figures - usually from national health ministries - are not capturing all the deaths from the pandemic. Some governments, for instance, do not include in their figures deaths which take place in care homes. The FT's said that its figures might also be capturing deaths that are only indirectly attributable to the virus - for example people who die of other health problems because national systems are overwhelmed with virus patients.

But it said that most were directly related to the virus. It wrote that "excess mortality has risen most steeply in places suffering the worst COVID-19 outbreaks, suggesting most of these deaths are directly related to the virus rather than simply side-effects of lockdowns."

The analysis looked at countries including Denmark, Italy, Spain, France, Ecuador, Sweden, and England and Wales.

It also looked at specific regions.

For example, in Ecuador's Guayas province, which has been hard hit by the virus, the FT said that 245 deaths from the coronavirus were reported between March 1 and April 15.

But overall death statistics showed that around 10,200 more people had died during this period compared to the average in previous years: an increase of 350%.

It found that New York City had a 200% rise in deaths compared to the normal number of deaths, and that Madrid, Spain, had a 161% increase.

According to the FT analysis, the number of deaths compared to the average rose by 60% in Belgium, by 51% in Spain, by 42% in the Netherlands and by 34% in France.

In all countries except Denmark, the FT found that the higher-than-normal number of deaths far outnumbered the number of deaths that had been recorded due to the coronavirus.

Wide skepticism over the accuracy of countries' death tolls

There has been skepticism over official death tolls since the outbreaks began. The true scale of the pandemic is hard to measure without mass testing, which many countries have struggled to provide.

Some countries could end up doing like China, and revising death tolls after the outbreak has been contained.

The city of Wuhan, where the outbreak began, in April revised its death toll to be 50% higher, citing deaths from cases that were missed because of the overwhelmed health system.

And some countries already have glaring omissions from their reported death tolls.

For example, some of the UK's official data only includes the deaths that take place in hospitals.

A New York Times analysis published on Saturday found that at least 36,000 more people had died during the pandemic over the previous month in 12 countries compared to what official figures show.

Other research has also said that the real death tolls in China, Italy and the US may be at least 10 times higher.

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