How Kenya under-reported 20,000 Covid deaths last year

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Kenya under-reported Covid-19 deaths by more than 20,000, according to data from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

This was excess deaths by 5.6 times of the confirmed Covid-19 deaths. On the other hand, in 2021 Kenya had a huge number of excess deaths, at 45 per 100,000, which translates to 24,471 more deaths in the country during the second year of the pandemic compared to the years before the pandemic.

While the total deaths confirmed by the Ministry of Health at the end of 2021 were 5,381, reported deaths for 2020 were 1,681, meaning the deaths in 2021 were 3,700.

However, according to the WHO, the excess deaths in 2021 were 24,471, meaning there was an under-reporting of deaths by 20,771. This is even as the WHO reports that 15 million people died of Covid-19 globally, while only 5.4 million people are reported to have died of the illness over the two years.

“Excess deaths as per the WHO report is obtained from calculating the difference between the number of deaths that have occurred in the period and the number that would be expected in the absence of the pandemic based on data from earlier years, up to 2019,” explained Dr Ahmed Kalebi, a consultant pathologist.

In Kenya’s situation, the mean excess death as determined by WHO is 11 excess deaths for every 100,000 people in the population over the first two years of the pandemic.

“Extrapolated to Kenya’s total population of 54.38 million, it means Kenya had 5,982 excess deaths between January 2020 and December 2021,” he says.

However, in 2020, Kenya actually had a negative excess death of -23 per 100,000, which means 23 fewer people died per 100,000 in 2020 compared to previous years, which translates to 12,507 fewer deaths in 2020 compared to the normal average deaths a year before the pandemic. As at end of 2020, the cumulative confirmed Covid-19 deaths as reported by MOH was 1,681.

Therefore, although 1,681 deaths had occurred due to Covid-19 in 2020, the negative excess death of 12,507 deaths means that overall, fewer people died in 2020 than previous years. In other words, during the first year of the pandemic, Kenya had 12,507 fewer people dying than before the pandemic.

In February, the World Bank released a report based on a study on a popular obituary website. While using the UN’s estimate of 284,000 deaths in Kenya in 2019, it suggested that the total excess mortality since the start of the pandemic was roughly 28,000. In contrast, the total officially recorded Covid-19 deaths then were 5,520.

“The lower death rate can be attributed to the reduced deaths from infections such as diarrhoea diseases and other respiratory infections that were controlled because of handwashing and general hygiene, as well as reduced deaths due to road traffic accidents and trauma as people were mainly home-bound while social interactions were curtailed,” Dr Kalebi said.

He said estimating the excess deaths allows scientists to have a better view of the effects of the pandemic on deaths compared to before the pandemic, whereby it can be logically deduced that the increase or decrease in the deaths during the pandemic would be a result of the pandemic itself, whether directly or indirectly,” he says. The WHO figures confirmed that Kenya did very badly in 2021, emerging second-worst in Eastern Africa after South Sudan and 140 out of 194 countries globally compared to 2020 when Kenya was ranked position 162 out of 194 globally.

Overall, Kenya and East Africa have done better than most countries worldwide, considering that cumulatively, worst-hit South Sudan ranked 128 followed by Burundi at 131 then Tanzania at 139, Uganda at 149, Rwanda at 150 and Kenya at 157.