There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic is causing other medical conditions to be much worse. In Italy, the overtaxed healthcare system saw an order of magnitude increase in deaths from causes unrelated to COVID-19 as resources to deal with strokes, heart attacks, and accidents were simply unavailable. In New York City, ambulance crews were told to not even bring heart attack victims to the hospital unless the crew could establish a heartbeat on site. Around the world, patients have died either because all available hospital beds were already filled with coronavirus patients, or because the patient feared contracting the disease by visiting a healthcare facility—a very reasonable fear considering both the number of healthcare workers becoming infected and the way that having other diseases makes the consequences of developing COVID-19 much more threatening.
But it’s not just deaths from other causes that are going up. Deaths from COVID-19 are also being badly underreported. Both in the United States and in other countries, there are rules in place about how cause of death is reported. There are also reporting systems that are becoming overwhelmed by the sheer volume of deaths there are to handle. And the result of these factors together may be that the number of deaths from COVID-19 is much greater than realized—like, 60% higher.
It was clear enough that a lack of adequate testing means that in the United States—as well as other countries—the number of COVID-19 cases is being drastically undercounted. That fact has been used by right-wing sources to insist that the disease is less dangerous than widely though. After all, same number of deaths divided by a higher number of cases means that the rate of death is lower. It doesn’t bring back any of the 57,000 Americans who have already died, but it is a great talking point for the “reopen” crowd.
Almost from the start of the pandemic, there have also been sources on the right claiming that COVID-19 cases were being overcounted, with claims this was being done to embarrass Donald Trump and his “like the flu” predictions. But it’s already clear that deaths were missed early in the pandemic when deaths caused by COVID-19 were still being attributed to pneumonia or flu. New York already had to go back and claim over 3,000 deaths that occurred at home in patients who didn’t make it to the hospital. France had to make a similar adjustment for the thousands of people who had died in nursing homes.
Now a study published over the weekend by the Financial Times reviewed cases in 14 countries and determined that the number of deaths from the novel coronavirus may be as much as 60% higher than the current numbers would suggest. To make the calculations, Financial Times looked at mortality across a series of locations and compared it to the period between 2015 and 2019. For each area they then prepared a graph showing historical average rates of death vs. what’s been experienced there in 2020. The resulting data, in its raw state, shows just how large a factor COVID-19 is in deaths across the planet. The death rate is up by a third in Spain, by half in France, by 60% in Belgium. Forget comparing this pandemic to any other cause of death: It’s threatening to outpace them all put together.
In many of the nations studied, the increase in the number of deaths greatly exceeds the number of deaths attributed to COVID-19. Even excluding the deaths caused by an inability to treat some conditions, or by patients afraid to come into health facilities, there is still a sharp increase. And that increase is greatest in areas where there are the most COVID-19 cases, even when those cases have not overwhelmed local healthcare providers. This indicates that the majority of these excess deaths aren’t heart attacks that went untreated because of COVID-19, or cancer patients not getting care because of COVID-19. These deaths are just … COVID-19 deaths.
These deaths are also everywhere: 13,000 more in Italy, another 1,400 in Indonesia, and 10,000 more in Ecuador, where only 663 deaths are officially attributed to COVID-19. The results of the study show that COVID-19 isn’t being overcounted—it’s being universally undercounted, and in amounts that may already mean there are more than 100,000 additional deaths out there waiting to be categorized.
It also means that even as multiple Trump-supporting sources are trying to revive the idea that COVID-19 is no big deal because the death rate is low, that rate is higher than it seems. And the number of deaths that might result from unchecked spread is even more horrendous.