How many infants may have died in low-income and middle-income countries in 2020 due to the economic contraction accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic? Mortality projections based on forecasted declines in economic growth

BMJ Open. 2021 Aug 24;11(9):e050551. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2021-050551.


Objectives: While COVID-19 has a relatively small direct impact on infant mortality, the pandemic is expected to indirectly increase mortality of this vulnerable group in low-income and middle-income countries through its effects on the economy and health system performance. Previous studies projected indirect mortality by modelling how hypothesised disruptions in health services will affect health outcomes. We provide alternative projections, relying on modelling the relationship between aggregate income shocks and mortality.

Design: We construct a sample of 5.2 million births by pooling retrospective birth histories reported by women in Demographic and Health Surveys conducted in 83 low-income and middle-income countries between 1985 and 2018. We employ regression models with country-specific fixed-effects and flexible time trends to estimate the impact of gross domestic product per capita on infant mortality rate. We then use growth projections by the International Monetary Fund to predict the effect of the economic downturn in 2020 on infant mortality.

Results: We estimate 267 208 (95% CI 112 000 to 422 415) excess infant deaths in 128 countries, corresponding to a 6.8% (95% CI 2.8% to 10.7%) increase in the total number of infant deaths expected in 2020.

Conclusions: The findings underscore the vulnerability of infants to the negative income shocks such as those imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. While efforts towards prevention and treatment of COVID-19 remain paramount, the global community should also strengthen social safety nets and assure continuity of essential health services.

Keywords: COVID-19; health economics; health policy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19*
  • Developing Countries
  • Economic Development
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Pandemics*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • SARS-CoV-2