The first known death from covid-19 occurred on January 9th in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Since then more than 235,000 lives have been lost to the disease, making it more deadly than the SARS, H1N1, MERS, and Ebola epidemics combined. But it is also killing more people than other, more familiar, causes of death.
A back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that more people are dying from covid-19 globally than from almost anything else. According to the Global Burden of Disease, an annual study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) that tallies the lives lost to 282 illnesses and injuries across 195 countries and territories, diabetes was responsible for 20,000 deaths a week, on average, in 2017 (the latest year for which data are available). Road accidents killed 25,000 a week. Lung and tracheal cancers, 36,000. Lower respiratory infections, such as pneumonia and bronchitis, another 49,000. During one particularly deadly seven-day period in April, the coronavirus killed more than 50,000 (see chart).
Even if it were to end tomorrow, covid-19 would still be among the leading causes of death in 2020 so far. At more than 235,000 lives lost according to official records, the disease currently ranks above breast cancer, malaria and Parkinson’s disease. And this figure is also almost certainly too low. In many countries, official covid-19 death tolls include only those who die in hospital or who have tested positive for the virus. Those who die elsewhere, or undiagnosed—as well as those killed by conditions that might normally be treated in intensive-care units now overwhelmed by covid-19 patients—are left out of the statistics.
Lockdowns imposed to halt the spread of the virus could have other long-term health effects. Routine screenings for some health conditions have been suspended in many countries (in parts of Britain, cancer referrals are down by nearly three-quarters). Meanwhile, social isolation is also taking a psychological toll. In Russia, vodka sales in the last week of March jumped by 31%. In America, gun sales in March were up by 85%. More alcohol and firearm use could contribute to more suicides.
Amid the gloom, there are some bright spots. As people stay indoors under lockdown, there will be fewer road accidents, the eighth-leading cause of death worldwide. A reduction in air pollution will reduce the number of premature births; fewer people will suffer from asthma.
Weekly covid-19 deaths are now falling. For the week ending April 29th, they were down to under 40,000. The worst may be over in the rich world, for now, and there is great uncertainty about how hard the virus will strike poor countries. But even if the virus is on the wane, for the past few weeks the human cost of the disease has been all too apparent.
This article is from our Graphic detail section.