Covid pandemic caused 15m global deaths – how UK compares with Europe and rest of world for excess mortality

The UK is among the worst-hit countries in the world, with more than two-thirds of nations weathering the pandemic with fewer extra deaths than usual.

New figures from the World Health Organisation (WHO) reveal how countries around the world compare on the number of excess deaths during the Covid pandemic - and 70% of nations recorded fewer deaths than the UK.

Figures out last week (5 May) reveal an estimated 14.9 million excess deaths worldwide were associated with the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 – 9.5 million more than the number of official Covid deaths.

Excess mortality measures the true impact of the pandemic, as it captures deaths either caused by Covid directly (due to the disease) or indirectly (due to the pandemic’s impact on health systems and society).

It also takes into account any reduction in deaths due to the pandemic, such as from fewer car accidents during lockdowns.

The UK ranked 56th out of 194 countries for having the highest number of excess deaths during 2020 and 2021, recording 109 extra deaths per 100,000 people, or 149,000 deaths in total.

It was 26th out of 43 European countries (excluding Russia), but sixth worst-hit out of 23 nations and principalities in Western Europe, surpassed only by San Marino (251 deaths per 100,000 people), Andorra (242), Italy (133), Germany (116) and Spain (111).

The UK’s closest neighbours, France and Ireland, recorded significantly fewer deaths, at 63 and 29 per 100,000 respectively.

The UK Government has faced criticism over some aspects of its pandemic response and last month was found to have acted unlawfully after it discharged untested hospital patients into care homes.

Which countries have been worst hit by coronavirus?

Excess death figures for 2020 and 2021 are the difference between the number of deaths that have occurred and the number that would normally have been expected based on data from previous years.

The figures are an estimate, as some countries do not have adequate record keeping. WHO analysts have created projections to fill in the gaps.

WHO’s analysis shows Peru has been the worst affected country in the world. The South American nation recorded 437 excess deaths per 100,000 people during the 2020 to 2021 period, four times more than the UK.

This was closely followed by Bulgaria, which recorded 415 per 100,000 during the same period, and Bolivia with 375.


Most of the excess deaths (84%) are concentrated in South-East Asia, Europe, and the Americas.

New Zealand, which notably took a ‘zero covid’ strategy to the pandemic, recorded no excess mortality, with 28 fewer deaths per 100,000 people than would normally have been expected – one of the best outcomes in the world. China also recorded negative deaths, with -2 deaths per 100,000.

WHO said a negative number of excess deaths would likely be due to public health measures taken to control the virus (such as working from home or social distancing), which resulted in fewer road traffic injuries and less seasonal flu, for instance.


How do UK deaths compare with the rest of Europe?

A clear West/East divide has emerged in Europe with countries in the east recording a much greater number of excess deaths than most nations on the other side of the continent.

Bulgaria recorded the greatest number of excess deaths in Europe with 415 per 100,000 people, followed by North Macedonia with 369 per 100,000 and Lithuania with 319.  Russia with 367. Ukraine recorded 227 excess deaths per 100,000, the 12th highest in Europe.

Iceland and Norway were the only countries in Europe to record negative deaths with -2 and -1 deaths per 100,000 respectively.


‘The true extent of excess mortality often remains hidden’

WHO said its figures showed the importance of crisis-proofing healthcare systems so they are not overburdened during pandemics.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said: “These sobering data not only point to the impact of the pandemic but also to the need for all countries to invest in more resilient health systems that can sustain essential health services during crises, including stronger health information systems.

“WHO is committed to working with all countries to strengthen their health information systems to generate better data for better decisions and better outcomes.”

Dr Samira Asma, assistant director-general for data, analytics and delivery at WHO added: “Measurement of excess mortality is an essential component to understand the impact of the pandemic.

“Because of limited investments in data systems in many countries, the true extent of excess mortality often remains hidden. These new estimates use the best available data and have been produced using a robust methodology and a completely transparent approach.”

WHO’s analysis used a statistical model made using information from countries with adequate death data; the model was then used to generate estimates for countries with little or no data available.

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