Variability in excess deaths across countries with different vulnerability during 2020-2023

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2023 Dec 5;120(49):e2309557120. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2309557120. Epub 2023 Nov 29.


Excess deaths provide total impact estimates of major crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. We evaluated excess death trajectories across countries with accurate death registration and population age structure data and assessed relationships with vulnerability indicators. Using the Human Mortality Database on 34 countries, excess deaths were calculated for 2020-2023 (to week 29, 2023) using 2017-2019 as reference, with adjustment for 5 age strata. Countries were divided into less and more vulnerable; the latter had per capita nominal GDP < $30,000, Gini > 0.35 for income inequality and/or at least ≥2.5% of their population living in poverty. Excess deaths (as proportion of expected deaths, p%) were inversely correlated with per capita GDP (r = -0.60), correlated with proportion living in poverty (r = 0.66), and modestly correlated with income inequality (r = 0.45). Incidence rate ratio for deaths was 1.062 (95% CI, 1.038-1.087) in more versus less vulnerable countries. Excess deaths started deviating in the two groups after the first wave. Between-country heterogeneity diminished gradually within each group. Less vulnerable countries had mean p% = -0.8% and 0.4% in 0-64 and >65-y-old strata. More vulnerable countries had mean p% = 7.0% and 7.2%, respectively. Lower death rates were seen in children of age 0-14 y during 2020-2023 versus prepandemic years. While the pandemic hit some countries earlier than others, country vulnerability dominated eventually the cumulative impact. Half the analyzed countries witnessed no substantial excess deaths versus prepandemic levels, while the others suffered major death tolls.

Keywords: COVID-19; bias; demography; mortality.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • COVID-19*
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Humans
  • Income
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Pandemics*
  • Poverty