Morgue Statistics Show COVID-19 Deaths May be Higher Than Reported
As of April 5, more than 251,300 Africans died from COVID-19, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC).
But morgue statistics from Zambia’s capital city, Lusaka, showed that nearly one-third of more than 1,000 corpses in 2020 and 2021 were infected with COVID-19, Nature magazine reported. Health experts say those statistics suggest that the pandemic’s toll across the continent is higher than official numbers show.
A lack of testing and overwhelmed health systems are cited as reasons why the true impact of COVID-19 in Africa is underreported. Christopher Gill, a global health specialist at Boston University in Massachusetts, who co-authored the Lusaka morgue study, said it is wrong to ignore the pandemic’s true death toll.
“People were ill,” Gill, who lost a colleague in Zambia while working on the project, told Nature. “They’ve had their families destroyed.”
The notion that Africa’s COVID-19 mortality rate is much higher than reported is “not hypothetical to me,” Gill added.
According to the study by Gill’s team, 32% of the bodies tested in Lusaka tested positive for COVID-19 while they were living and most were never tested at all; 80% of those tested were never treated at a hospital, and the majority were from the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods.
“We’re in a population that is already stressed and unhealthy, and then — bam! In comes COVID,” Gill told Nature.
As of April 4, just under 4,000 people in Zambia reportedly died from COVID-19, according to the Africa CDC. However, the number of “excess deaths”— those beyond what are expected — in Zambia from January 2020 to the end of 2021 exceeded 80,000, according to the Nature report.
A 2021 study in South Africa indicated that the true toll of COVID-19 in that country also was underreported. That study found that only 4% to 6% of COVID-19 infections in two communities were recorded.
Cheryl Cohen, co-author of the South African study and an epidemiologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, told Nature that many people who contracted COVID-19 in those communities were asymptomatic and that many people with symptoms could not afford to get tested.
A World Bank study published in February showed there were about 28,000 excess deaths in Kenya since the pandemic began. However, the Africa CDC reported just under 5,700 deaths in Kenya due to COVID-19 as of April 4.
“Given data deficiencies in many low- and middle-income countries, it is worth looking at alternative data sources to get some idea of the scope and dynamics of the pandemic,” the World Bank study said.
Worldwide, more than 6 million people have died from COVID-19, according to official records. But a study published March 10 by The Lancet medical journal suggested the actual figure is up to three times higher.
“We can confidently say that the pandemic has killed an extra 18.2 million people,” Dr. Chris Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics at the University of Washington and a co-author of the paper, told Time magazine.