We examine whether a country’s management of the COVID-19 pandemic relate to the downward biasing of the number of reported deaths from COVID-19. Using deviations from historical averages of the total number of monthly deaths within a country, we find that the probability of underreporting of COVID-related deaths for countries with the most stringent policies was 58.6%, compared to a 28.2% for countries with the least stringent policies. Countries with the lowest ex ante healthcare capacity in terms of number of available beds underreport deaths by 52.5% on average, compared to 23.1% for countries with the greatest capacity.
As the number of casualties from COVID-19 ballooned at an alarming rate last year, some feared that government officials were failing to report several coronavirus-related losses and the actual death toll was much higher worldwide.
While the official count shows more than 5 million people have died of the disease, a new study of underreported casualties in several countries indicates that COVID has actually killed hundreds of thousands more people than government records document.
The HBS researchers gathered the reported monthly numbers of deaths during the pandemic in each of the 51 countries from a variety of sources, including reports in the New York Times and the European Commission’s database, Eurostat. They compared that data to figures from the same months for the past three to five years to calculate excess deaths. Subtracting the number of official COVID deaths for each country helped them gauge potential underreporting.
In fact, countries with more stringent policies in place did, on average, have 59 percent higher unexplained excess deaths—that is, 159 deaths for every 100 reported for COVID.
Author(s): Ethan Rouen, George Serafeim
Publication Date: 2 Nov 2021
Publication Site: Working Knowledge at Harvard Business School