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Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.

A blog by Leon Oudejans

The number of people who have died from covid-19 is likely to be close to 17m (the Economist)

7 November 2021


Introduction LO:

I agree with this recent assessment by the Economist albeit from a different angle. Also see my 16 July 2021 blog, The asymptomatic Covid anomaly, that mentioned a likelihood of 20 million global deaths.

In many countries the average national death toll amounts to about 0,25% (eg, USA) or much less (eg, China, New Zealand). Applying a “discounted” average of 0,2% against a world population of nearly 8 billion people should result in 16 million rather than the about 5 million deaths that have been reported.

It’s very important to realize that this national average of 0,25% represents two possible scenarios:

  1. A population of about 95% symptomatic virus carriers with a low fatality risk of about 0,26%; or
  2. A population of about 5% symptomatic virus carriers with a high fatality risk of about 5% (ie, 5% x 5% = 0,25%).

These statistics do not allow assuming a large group of virus carriers AND a high fatality risk. You cannot have it both ways. It’s either large and low OR small and high. I think, feel and believe that (macro) scenario 2 is much more likely given the many (micro) horror stories (eg, in nursing homes).

Scenario 2 is supported by the global number of corona cases (250 million), the global number of recovered cases (226 million or 90%), and the global number of deaths (5 million or 2%). Source: worldometers. Hence, most people will get contaminated by the virus while a relatively low number will die.

Hence, scenario 2 has a group of 95% asymptomatic virus carriers with a zero mortality risk (w.r.t. Covid-19). This is the reason why Covid’s high fatality rate did not cause about 400 million deaths (ie, 8 billion x 5%).

The Economist title: The number of people who have died from covid-19 is likely to be close to 17m

The Economist subtitle: The official tally of 5m is a huge undercount
Date: 2 November 2021

When covid-19 first hit northern Italy in February 2020, The Economist noticed that something strange was happening. There were 1,140 deaths attributed to the virus in parts of Bergamo province in March, for example, but the overall increase in fatalities compared with the same period in the previous year was 2,420. Similar phenomena were soon noticed in America, Britain, Spain and other countries.

Official covid death tolls were—and continue to be—inaccurate. They typically rely on testing for the virus, which can be patchy, and use definitions which exclude indirect consequences of the pandemic, such as extra deaths in overburdened hospitals. Fortunately, there is a better way to calculate death tolls. To measure those of events such as wars, researchers do not check how many dead people have bullets in them, but on something much more reliable: how many more died during them than one would expect in normal years. This is known as “excess deaths”.

The gulf between official and reliable counts of covid-related deaths means that while the global toll officially passed 5m on November 1st, the actual number of people lost to the virus is, by The Economist’s count, closer to 17m.

Undercounts are much more significant in poorer countries. In Bulgaria, pandemic deaths are probably nearly twice as high as the official tally. In Russia, the official statistics seem to underestimate the true number of covid deaths by a factor of 3.5; in India the government’s number underestimates the death toll by a factor of ten. As well as leading to a poor understanding of the virus’ true spread, this phenomenon means that the pandemic’s impact is underestimated most in the countries with the least resources to fight it (see map).

There are still some reasons to use the official death counts. They can show trends over time within countries, for example. But too often they are used to compare rich and poor countries or to assess the global death toll—metrics for which they are useless. They are still used, however, because they are more up to date than excess-death counts, and, unlike them, are available for all countries.

The Economist has found a way to remedy this situation, and is the only source of daily updated estimates of excess deaths around the world. To find the true death toll of the pandemic, The Economist first collected mortality data for all countries where it was available (with help from researchers and volunteers), and then built a machine learning model to predict it where it is unknown. (We have made these estimates, as well as our data, code and models, freely available, and presented our work to the World Health Organisation, among others.) Our estimates, at time of writing, find the most likely global death toll to be 16.8m, with a confidence interval of between 10.3m and 19.5m. The likeliest date for when deaths due to the pandemic passed 5m fell in the first week of December 2020.

Our model estimates come with uncertainty, sometimes enormous, especially in the places with the least data available. But uncertainty around a correct number is both warranted and appropriate when data are imperfect. It is also better than the alternative: full confidence in a single number, that is certain to be wrong.”



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