A photo of lab equipment measuring numbers like airflow, exhaust and time.
Lab equipment measuring numbers like airflow, exhaust and time. Credit: Josh Berson Credit: Josh Berson

It is said that life is a terminal condition. Every year, some 140 million babies are born and some 54 million people die worldwide. The causes of death are many, ranging from infant and maternal mortality to various diseases, accidents, conflicts, natural disasters and, for some, extreme old age. 

In late April 2022, Kane Tanaka of Japan died at the age of 119. Her ranking as the world’s oldest person passed to Sister Lucille Randon, a Frenchwoman well over 118. 

Life expectancy is a tricky number to calculate. Worldwide, it averaged 72.81 in 2021, reflecting an increase of less than half of one percent over each of the preceding two years. 

In 2022, life expectancy is predicted to be 82.81 overall in Canada. Our country ranks below Japan at 84.91 but well above Niger at 55.44.

What effect did COVID have on these numbers? It is almost impossible to say with accuracy, yet this question highlights many of the issues associated with data from the onset of the pandemic. At first, statisticians tried to track the number of cases, the number of hospitalizations, the number of ICU admissions and the number of deaths. 

The challenge was exacerbated by the delay in reporting, especially in China, which did not provide data from the outset of the disease. By the time WHO declared a worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, on March 1, 2020, data was already lost and inaccurate.

Some of the reasons were different methods of collection in different countries and even within countries. In Canada, for example, the provinces varied in the timing of data collection as well as the methodology for classifying cases as positive, hospitalizations and deaths. Now, over two years later, there is no data collected that can be considered complete and accurate in terms of counts. 

Canadians are now their own monitors of COVID. Some people are tested frequently through employment or because they are at higher-than-average risk. Most Canadians are left to take their own rapid tests if they feel unwell. Whether the results are accurate, to whom they should be reported and whether or not the results are reported is certainly not consistent. 

Provincial and territorial jurisdictions may still count COVID hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths. However, they also use wastewater testing to estimate the prevalence of COVID in the population. Some also collect data from laboratories that add COVID tests to other serology tests being performed.

Many other factors also affect the statistics.  Public health agencies continue to report that unvaccinated people (by which they mean adults) contract COVID more frequently than vaccinated people. Their cases are more serious, with poorer outcomes, than those of vaccinated people.

Some jurisdictions are trying to drill down on these numbers. They are investigating the differences in illnesses and deaths between the unvaccinated and those with one shot; those with two shots; and those with one or now two boosters.

There is also a line of investigation that suggests that having had COVID may protect even the unvaccinated from serious bouts of the virus. These calculations factor in when the bout of COVID occurred, to try to estimate how long antibodies stay high from both shots (including boosters) and the disease. 

At the end of the day, does any of this matter? Does it help inform public health strategies to reduce the spread of COVID? In the United States, one source estimates that over 43 per cent of the population has had COVID, although many people were asymptomatic and did not realize they were sick. 

Another source, the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, estimates that, using blood test findings, 58 per cent of the whole population and 75 per cent of children have been or should have been diagnosed with COVID-19.  Canada’s COVID incidence is likely lower, due to higher vaccination rates, but 50 per cent is not unlikely.

In Canada, the Angus Reid Institute reported that as of January 31, 2022, just over 20 per cent of households reported at least one case of COVID. These findings support the consensus that, eventually, everyone will have had at least one bout of COVID, perhaps without realizing it. 

Despite the inaccuracy of the data, it remains clear that the unvaccinated remain those most at risk of not just contracting COVID, but of contracting more serious cases, some leading to death. Some public health specialists have suggested that populations would be safer as a whole if the unvaccinated received shots, rather than the vaccinated receiving boosters.

This is not news. Vaccines continue to be the single greatest protection against becoming ill and spreading the virus. 

What is news is the extent to which worldwide deaths have increased overall because of COVID. Again, the data is not totally comparable across countries, but it bears review. According to the WHO

“On 30 January 2020 COVID-19 was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) with an official death toll of 171. By 31 December 2020, this figure stood at 1,813,188. Yet preliminary estimates suggest the total number of global deaths attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 is at least 3 million, representing 1.2 million more deaths than officially reported. [emphasis mine]

For 2020, three million COVID deaths worldwide  in ten months translates into some 9,800 deaths per day. This number ranks third in the list of daily worldwide causes of death, i.e., behind cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and respiratory diseases.  

It will be some time before statisticians compute the actual number of excess deaths caused by COVID. Data are affected by definitions of “cause.” For example, were patients admitted to hospital because of COVID? Were they admitted to hospital for other diagnoses only to acquire COVID in-hospital? Did they die of other causes because hospital resources were diverted to COVID patients? 

COVID has become a small-p political movement, at least in North America and parts of Europe. Anti-vaxxers continue to protest against the imposition of vaccine and mask mandates. Perhaps it is time to publicly report that a disproportionate portion of people are dying because protesters refuse either jabs or masks or both. Would that knowledge help reduce the COVID death numbers? Statistics can only go so far.

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Evelyn Lazare

Evelyn H Lazare is a healthcare planner, strategist and executive. Lazare has led nation-wide healthcare organizations in Canada and has consulted to an array of healthcare and related clients in both...