WHO: True COVID-19 death toll estimated at 14.9m

In this Oct 18, 2020 file photo, families of COVID-19 victims who passed away in New York nursing homes gather in front of the Cobble Hill Heath Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York, to demand New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo's apology for his response to nursing homes clusters during the pandemic. (PHOTO / AP)

BEIJING – COVID-19 has directly or indirectly killed 14.9 million people globally in 2020 and 2021, the World Health Organization said in its latest annual world health statistics report released on Friday.

As of March 11, 6.9 million deaths have been reported to the WHO. But the figure is seen by the global health agency as a significant undercount, as disruptions to healthcare services during the pandemic could lead to indirect life losses.

The WHO's analysis used mathematical modeling to calculate "excess mortality" for 2020 and 2021 — how many more people died than would normally be expected based on mortality in the same area if the crisis had not happened.

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The true death toll includes deaths directly attributed to COVID-19 that were reported to the WHO, deaths directly attributed to COVID-19 that were not counted or reported, and deaths indirectly associated with the pandemic due to the wider impact on health systems and society.

The world has lost staggering millions of life years in just two years. It's like losing 22 years of life for every excess death in 2020 and 2021.

Dr Samira Asma, Assistant Director-General, WHO

Over 80 percent of WHO member states show a higher excess mortality rate than the reported statistics, implying the impact of COVID-19 is "far-reaching", as the WHO put it.

Dramatic finding

The 14.9-million figure also indicates that a total of 336.8 million life years have been lost in 2020-21 due to the pandemic.

"The world has lost staggering millions of life years in just two years. It's like losing 22 years of life for every excess death in 2020 and 2021," Dr Samira Asma, WHO assistant director-general for data, analytics and delivery for impact, said in a news conference that presented the report.

For the first time, this year's report added a dedicated section on how climate change, such as extreme weather events, can affect human health. Under a high emissions scenario, there could be over 9 million related deaths each year by the end of the century, with the WHO citing research by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

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Underprivileged countries bear the heaviest burdens, despite contributing the least to global emissions, the WHO said.

Residents wait for their turn at a COVID-19 vaccination center in Quezon City, Philippines on, Jan 11, 2022. (PHOTO / AP)

Based on the new findings, the WHO called for urgent action needed to meet health-related Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, as progress on key health indicators has been stagnating since 2015 and the pandemic has dealt another blow.

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"The message is clear. The world is off track to reaching the Sustainable Development Goals. And unless we pick up the pace, we risk losing countless lives that could have been saved as well as failing to improve the quality of life for all," Asma said.

"The COVID-19 pandemic is an important reminder that progress is neither linear nor guaranteed. To stay on track toward the 2030 SDG agenda, we must act decisively and collectively to deliver a measurable impact in all countries."