Fact check: Disease death rates bar chart does not accurately reflect impact of COVID-19

Social media users have shared a bar chart comparing disease death rates that suggests the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic has been greatly exaggerated.

FILE PHOTO: A person is tested at a coronavirus test centre in the car park of Chessington World of Adventures as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, Chessington, Britain, April 18, 2020. To match Special Report HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS/BRITAIN-TRACING REUTERS/Toby Melville/File Photo

The graph, however, lacks the parameters needed to accurately compare death rates and is unclear and misleading in its presentation of data.

The chart claims to compare the daily number of worldwide deaths caused by COVID-19 to 25 other diseases including tuberculosis, seasonal flu, malaria and HIV/AIDS (here&set=a.336460216364448&type=3&theater , here&set=a.100566728265080&type=3 , here&set=a.10208752507707730&type=3&theater).

Text underneath the graph states that the figures are sourced from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Lancet medical journal and are “correct as of March 9, 2020”. Pointing to the COVID-19 entry of “56” are the words: “THIS is what collapsed the world economy”.

The first issue with this statement is that the COVID-19 statistic was calculated before deaths caused by the disease started growing exponentially.

“This graph is very out of date”, Royal Statistical Society statistical ambassador Anthony Masters told Reuters. “By 9th March, COVID-19 was an emerging disease with under 4,000 reported deaths.” (here) He noted that according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, reported COVID-19 deaths worldwide increased to over 400,000 by mid-June.

The same chart (here) shows cumulative worldwide deaths at 511,037 as of July 1. By Reuters calculations, that would equate to a daily rate of 2,792 daily deaths per day if measured since the start of 2020 – nearly 50 times higher than the rate shown in the bar chart for the arbitrary date of March 9.

According to Masters, another potentially misleading feature of the graph is the comparison of “this earlier COVID-19 figure to established diseases”. Unlike the coronavirus, diseases like tuberculosis have now established a more stable death rate (here).

The bar chart does not make clear how the figures were calculated and, if they are averages, what time period they refer to.

“The crucial thing in comparing any impacts is to be clear about the area and time period over which they are experienced,” said David Spiegelhalter, chair of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at Cambridge University. “Even if COVID deaths do not rank highly when averaged over the whole year, it is important to remember that the COVID deaths came in a spike that threatened to overwhelm health services”.


Misleading. The graph lacks the parameters needed to the compare death rates, as well as information about how the numbers were calculated. The COVID-19 death rate does not reflect the current impact of the disease.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our work to fact-check social media posts here .