When the COVID-19 pandemic claimed its victims, it stole their futures — their struggles and accomplishments, sorrows and joys, moments mundane and magical.
Now, the World Health Organization has offered a staggering estimate of the time on Earth those who died in 2020 and 2021 collectively lost: 336.8 million years.
An average of more than 22 years of life were lost for each person who died in the pandemic, which “abruptly and tragically” cut short the lives of millions, the agency said in a statement.
Another way of looking at it: more than five years of life were lost every second during those two years.
The WHO came to its estimate, released last week in its World Health Statistics 2023 report, by analyzing the number of excess deaths caused by the pandemic and the number of years those people could have been expected to live.
Earlier this month, the agency estimated there were 14.9 million excess deaths worldwide in 2020 and 2021 because of the effects of the pandemic, with about 10.4 million additional deaths in 2020 and about 4.4 million in 2021.
The official worldwide death toll from COVID-19 is far lower, reaching 6.9 million in March 2023, according to WHO. But the “true toll is significantly higher,” the agency said in last week’s report.
The pandemic “has indirectly affected mortality through mechanisms such as disruptions to health-care services and changes in care-seeking behaviors,” the report said. “Excess mortality associated with the COVID-19 pandemic — as measured by the difference between overall mortality during the pandemic and the expected mortality level without the impact of the pandemic during the same period — is a crucial indicator of the true impact,” the report said.
While excess mortality provides a “unique lens” to assess the toll of the pandemic, measuring lost years offers “additional insights,” the agency said in a statement.
It’s well known, for example, that older people have been hit hardest by the pandemic. The agency found that 64 percent of excess deaths were among those 65 and older. But that group accounted for just 43 percent of years of lost life because they would not have lived as long as younger people.
In terms of years of life lost, the hardest-hit group was 55- to 64-year-olds, who lost more than 90 million years, the agency estimated. That was due to “a combination of a relatively higher excess mortality rate in this age group and much higher potential years of life lost for each death that occurred at this age due to its relatively younger age,” the report said.
Martin Finucane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.