On Aug. 17, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) said “We cannot live with 15,000 deaths a week” due to COVID-19, raising the alarm after global deaths due to the virus, according to the WHO, increased by 35 percent over the past month. However, the alarm may be woefully unwarranted considering deaths attributed to COVID-19 are now significantly less than many other causes of death including traffic accidents.
Globally, between 55 and 60 million people die each year with the leading cause of death being cardiovascular diseases, which in 2019 accounted for close to 357 thousand deaths each week, according to ourworldindata.org.
The second leading cause of death globally, cancers, claimed the lives of roughly 10 million people in 2021; over 192 thousand deaths per week.
Deaths due to respiratory diseases, not including COVID-19 deaths —which many researchers argue is a vascular disease — is the third leading cause of death globally with 3.97 million deaths in 2019 or roughly 76 thousand deaths weekly.
Traffic accidents and road injuries claimed the lives of roughly 1.2 million people in 2019 or just over 23 thousand per week. This means that the average global citizen is at more risk of losing their life to a traffic accident than COVID-19.
Despite this, the WHO is still warning that “With colder weather approaching in the northern hemisphere and people spending more time indoors, the risks for more intense transmission and hospitalization will only increase in the coming months.”
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Deaths associated with lockdown measures
According to a trio of economists quoted in an article published earlier this year by webmd.com, lockdowns are roughly defined as “compulsory nonpharmaceutical interventions … that restrict internal movement, close schools and businesses, and ban international travel.”
Numerous countries implemented various lockdown measures as the pandemic progressed, closing schools, shuttering businesses and severely restricting people’s ability to move freely in their communities including bans on visiting the elderly in care homes, closing gyms and schools and restricting travel both internationally and domestically.
While hard numbers showing just how many deaths were associated with these measures are unavailable, looking at one key metric, excess mortality, may provide some insight.
According to the Cambridge dictionary “excess mortality” is defined as “the number of deaths during a particular period above the usual, expected number under normal conditions, which can show the effect of something like a disease or harmful event.”
Data indicates that in the United States this metric soared in 2020, when most lockdown measures were implemented, particularly among people aged 15 to 54 and “most of those excess deaths weren’t attributed to the virus,” the NY Post reported.
The increase in excess mortality coincided with a sharp decline in visits to emergency rooms and an increase in fatal heart attacks because patients “didn’t receive prompt treatment,” the NY Post wrote.
According to the same report, originally published in part by John Tierney writing for City Journal, “Researchers predicted that the social and economic upheaval [due to lockdowns] would lead to tens of thousands of ‘deaths of despair’ from drug overdoses, alcoholism, and suicide,” adding that, “As unemployment surged and mental-health and substance-abuse treatment programs were interrupted, the reported levels of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts increased dramatically.”
The number of people who died in traffic accidents in the U.S. during this period also rose dramatically, to the highest level in more than a decade despite people driving much less than prior to the outbreak of the pandemic. “It was the steepest annual increase in the fatality rate per mile traveled in nearly a century,” Tierney wrote.
Deaths due to lockdowns expected to grow
Despite much of the pandemic, and associated lockdowns, being behind us, deaths due to lockdown measures are expected to continue well into the future.
“The deadly impact of lockdowns will grow in future years, due to the lasting economic and educational consequences,” Tierney wrote.
According to a team of researchers from John Hopkins and Duke, who researched the effect past recessions had on excess deaths, it’s expected that over the next two decades more than a million Americans will lose their lives due to the massive “unemployment shock” triggered by lockdown measures.
Disruptions in education are expected to drive excess death figures well into the future as well.
“Other researchers, noting how educational levels affect income and life expectancy, have projected that the ‘learning loss’ from school closures will ultimately cost this generation of students more years of life than have been lost by all the victims of the coronavirus,” Tierney wrote.
During the pandemic, the number of excess deaths rose for all American adults however during the summer months, when the pandemic had eased, excess deaths declined among older Americans but stayed unusually high among young adults, and most of these excess deaths were not associated directly with the COVID-19 virus.
The Canadian government also reported unusually high mortality among Canadians 45 years of age or younger. The country recorded 1,700 excess deaths from May 2020 to the following November with just 50 of those deaths attributed to COVID-19, Tierney asserts.
Sheldon H. Jacobson, a researcher from the University of Illinois, said “We don’t know exactly why, but a lot of adults were dying last year who would not have ordinarily died, and it wasn’t just because of Covid,” adding that, “It’s possible that some of the COVID-19 deaths were undercounted, but there were many deaths due to other causes. Shutdowns certainly caused mental health issues, and a lot of preventive medical treatments were delayed.”