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Co-author of peer-reviewed study: 'Some countries are lying'

Global COVID death toll over a million higher than reported, Israeli study finds

4.22 million have been reported dead but many were left out, say Hebrew University researchers, pointing to authoritarian regimes downplaying virus and others unable to keep track

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Gravediggers in protective suits carry the coffin of the deceased, who died of COVID-19, as relatives and friends stand at a distance in the coronavirus section of a cemetery in Kolpino, outside St. Petersburg.  (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky, File)
Gravediggers in protective suits carry the coffin of the deceased, who died of COVID-19, as relatives and friends stand at a distance in the coronavirus section of a cemetery in Kolpino, outside St. Petersburg. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky, File)

There have been over a million more coronavirus deaths around the world than shown by official statistics, an Israeli study claims.

Around 4.22 million people have been reported dead from COVID-19 worldwide, but researchers from Hebrew University say that inaccuracies in some countries and intentional downplaying of the virus in others have led to significant underreporting of mortality.

The suggestion is not a new one, but their contribution is peer-reviewed research, published in the eLife journal, evaluating the extent of the phenomenon in different countries.

Economist Dr. Ariel Karlinsky and statistician Dr. Dmitry Kobak have studied around half the countries in the world, asking how much higher deaths were during the pandemic compared to normal times, based on statistics from previous years adjusted to reflect population changes.

This is known as the number of excess deaths.

Their estimate of a million-plus unreported COVID deaths is based on those 103 countries alone, and as their ongoing research expands to other countries, they expect the estimate to rise.

Their data is based on calculations assessing the shortfall between the reported number of coronavirus deaths and the total of excess deaths, mostly using statistics collected during the spring. They argue that much of the shortfall consists of deaths caused by the coronavirus but categorized in other terms.

This effect is most pronounced in authoritarian countries. In Russia, when the research was completed in the spring, there were 110,000 confirmed coronavirus deaths, but there were 500,000 excess deaths.

In Belarus there were just 390 confirmed virus deaths but 5,700 excess deaths, and in Nicaragua, widely criticized for downplaying the disease, there were 140 reported coronavirus deaths but 7,000 excess deaths.

A person wears a mask as he attends a funeral at the central cemetery of Managua, Nicaragua, Monday, May 11, 2020. (AP Photo/Alfredo Zuniga)

“In some countries, normally very authoritarian countries such as Russia, Belarus and Nicaragua, the polite thing to say is they are obfuscating truth,” Karlinsky told The Times of Israel. “I think they are lying to show the rest of the world they are powerful and everything is under control.”

In most developed countries, the margins are relatively smaller and likely to reflect inevitable statistical discrepancies, “largely from the start of the pandemic when testing was not yet widespread,” he said.

In the United States, for example, there were 590,000 recorded coronavirus deaths and 640,000 excess deaths.

In this July 11, 2020, file photo, mourners carry the remains of loved ones following the blessing of the ashes of people who died from COVID-19 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez, File)

“There are also countries that want to report accurately but even today don’t have capacity to do so,” Karlinsky noted, giving the example of Peru, which struggled to record statistics and then doubled its death count after review in May. “In most Latin American countries, numbers are impacted by a lack of testing capacity.”

Karlinsky said that the true extent of underreporting isn’t clear from the statistics, suggesting that an analysis of Israel helps to explain why.

Israel is one of the few countries where the number of excess deaths is smaller than the number of recorded COVID-19 deaths: 5,000 versus 6,477.

Karlinsky suggested this was because lockdowns and social distancing meant that influenza was hardly existent in Israel, though in a normal year it causes around a significant number of deaths.

By the same logic, he said, the margin of underreporting is actually greater than the figures suggest in countries like Russia.

“As well as highlighting underreporting, our study emphasizes that the coronavirus has caused many more deaths than we would have expected to see,” Karlinsky said.

“This is important, because we have long heard some people claiming that COVID deaths are just a rebranding of ordinary deaths. This research shows clearly that even if you don’t designate the deaths as COVID deaths, there is a very noticeable increase in mortality in almost all of the countries we investigate.

“They used to say these are people who would be dying anyway. But the excess deaths calculation shows that many more people have been dying than you would normally see,” Karlinsky said.

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