Just How Do Deaths Due to COVID-19 Stack Up?

Christopher Troeger with Think Global Health

Created 03/17/2021



COVID-19 is the leading cause of death in France, England, Mexico, and Brazil, and the second leading cause in the U.S.

ince the World Health Organization declared a pandemic one year ago, COVID-19 has killed around three million people, including more than 500,000 in the United States, 250,000 in Brazil, and 150,000 in India. These tallies may substantially underestimate COVID-19’s true death toll. The scale of loss is staggering, but the huge numbers are difficult to understand without context. It can be helpful to consider how COVID-19 ranks as a cause of death around the world, and some of the factors driving those trends.

Since the beginning of 2020, COVID-19 was the fourth leading cause of death, accounting for nearly 1 in 20 deaths. About half of people globally live to 70 before they die, so causes of death that tend to kill older adults such as ischemic heart disease and stroke predominate among the most common causes of death. COVID-19 mortality is similar in that it kills very few young children or adolescents, but becomes sharply more dangerous with age and disproportionately kills people over 70 years old.

COVID-19 was the leading cause of death in France, Spain, England, and several U.S. states. People over 70, who are at higher risk of COVID-19 mortality, make up a higher share of the population in higher-income countries. Those countries also tend to have a higher prevalence of chronic health conditions that increase with age such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, and respiratory illness, which further contributed to higher rates of COVID-19 mortality.

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