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Covid-19: a tragedy in numbers

Only Belgium, Slovenia and San Marino have recorded higher coronavirus death rates than the UK.   

By Nicu Calcea

A figure as high as 100,000 people is difficult to comprehend. One way to imagine it is to think of the total population of the city of Worcester or that of the borough of Woking. It’s more than a fully sold-out Wembley Stadium. It is one out of every 600 people in the UK. And it is more than five times the 20,000 deaths that Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, suggested would be a “good outcome” last March. 

More than 100,000 people in the UK and more than two million people across the world have died with Covid-19 since the pandemic began. These numbers only represent deaths that have been confirmed to be associated with coronavirus. The truth is that many more will have been missed, especially in the early phases. 

But even based on official figures, the Covid-19 pandemic is one of the deadliest events in human history, on a par with the Vietnam War and more than twice the estimated death toll of the Great Irish Famine of 1845-49. 


The pandemic has affected nearly every country, leading to economic recession and widening inequality across the globe. Many factors are still unknown – such as when most of the world’s population will be vaccinated, what effect that will have on case numbers and deaths, the long-term health consequences of Covid-19 on those who survive, and how long it will take for economies to recover. 

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It is difficult to objectively quantify how well or badly a government has done: no one metric will show a complete picture. Even countries such as South Korea and Japan, which have been lauded for their pandemic efforts, have failed to prevent the death rate from rising. 

What is clear, however, is that some countries have struggled more than others. Just five countries – the US, Brazil, India, Mexico and the UK – account for 48.7 per cent of all confirmed Covid-19 deaths around the world. 

A major reason for this is that several of these countries are among the world’s largest. But population-adjusted figures show that the UK still has one of the worst mortality rates in the world, with only San Marino, Belgium and Slovenia recording more deaths per one million population. The US, which has suffered the highest absolute number of deaths, is tenth in per capita terms.

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The UK owes this unwanted record to its poor handling of the first wave and a surge of cases in December fuelled by a mutant strain of the virus that proved far more contagious than its predecessors. This has led to the UK becoming the first European country to record more than 100,000 total Covid-19 deaths, with Italy and France the next closest with 86,900 and 74,600 deaths respectively. This means 2020 has become the deadliest year in British history since 1918 – the height of the Spanish flu – and has been even deadlier than the Second World War years. 



Within the UK, the suffering has not been shared equally. Despite earlier descriptions of the virus as a “great equaliser” that attacked rich and poor alike, it has proven anything but. We first learned that men were more likely to become sick and to die with Covid-19, even when researchers accounted for socio-economic factors. Britons from an ethnic minority background were disproportionately affected, as were those living in more deprived areas

Medical and race equality organisations have accused the UK government of failing to protect Britain’s most vulnerable and warned that further action needs to be taken to reduce the disparities in risk from Covid-19. 

A string of miscalculations and bad decisions have led the UK to this point – one of the worst pandemic performances in the world. While the vaccination programme is giving Britons hope that a return to normality is possible, we are not at that point yet. Until that changes, the UK will continue to record more deaths – many of which could have been prevented.