The true number of global deaths attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic is probably two to three times higher than those officially documented, findings in this year's World Health Statistics Report suggest.
Based on excess death since the pandemic began, World Health Organization officials believe the true number is much higher than the 3.4 million deaths that have been officially documented as of Dec. 31, 2020.
WHO data analyst William Msemburi said the organization is working with other U.N. agencies to quantify both the direct and indirect impacts of COVID-19.
"Direct incorporates the reported COVID deaths as well as those COVID deaths that were missed because people died without testing," he said. "What I mean by indirect, these are the deaths that can be attributed to the difficult conditions that many people in the world are living under because of the pandemic. These conditions have made patients avoid health care, which has increased deaths."
Msemburi said the pandemic has taken a severe socio-economic toll, resulting in increases in diseases like depression, but treating COVID emergency patients has taken priority over those suffering from other diseases.
The report, which provides the latest data on more than 50 health-related U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and regional health trends, finds the pandemic has disrupted health services for many life-threatening diseases and poses major threats to health beyond the dangers of COVID-19 itself.
WHO assistant director-general in the division of data and analytics, Samira Asma, said prior to COVID-19, life expectancy was going up.
"We made great strides in global life expectancy, which was increasing with gains in healthy life expectancy as well. Yet, the pandemic has had a deleterious impact on these gains. And we are learning from several countries already that life expectancy has declined by two to three years," Asma said.
The statistics report says global life expectancy at birth increased from 66.8 years in 2000 to 73.3 years in 2019, with healthy life expectancy up from 58.3 to 63.67 years prior to the pandemic. The greatest gains were made in low-income countries.
It notes global tobacco use is down by 33 percent since 2000, but adult obesity is rising, affecting one quarter of populations in wealthy countries. It says non-communicable diseases account for seven of 10 causes of global deaths.