Fact check: Annual deaths data does not show 2020 as having one of the lowest rates in recent years

A screenshot showing a table of data that consists of worldwide death rates has been used to mislead social media users over the severity of the coronavirus pandemic, but in fact, the figures for 2020 were a projection made years earlier and don’t account for deaths accruing from the pandemic.

Reuters Fact Check. REUTERS

The screenshot, which was posted to Facebook and Twitter (here, here), comes from a data research website called Macrotrends and lists “historical death rate data” year-on-year between 1950 and 2020.

In 2020, the table shows the global death rate to be at 7.612 per 1,000 people, which is a rate marginally higher than that from 2016 through 2019 but is lower than 2015 and all years prior to this. In other words, apart from the four years between 2016 and 2019, the data in the table for 2020 appears to indicate the global death rate is at its lowest in nearly 70 years.

Social media users have picked up on this and have used it to question the true impact of COVID-19, with one Facebook user one writing: “Why is the world’s death rate in 2020 one of the lowest in the past 15 years? And there’s a “deadly” pandemic happening? How is that possible?”

In the comments section underneath the post, the same user appears to suggest the pandemic is “a fear tactic”. She wrote: “Their [sic] are doctors and nurses coming forward to say their [sic] are no covid patients/deaths...... I know 2 doctors very well. This is all a fear tactic.”

But the data used to make this assumption is misleading. The page on Macrotrends, itself, features a disclaimer at the top noting that 2020 data does not account for COVID-19 deaths. It also lists its data source as the United Nations (UN), which published the latest World Population Prospects in June 2019 (here). The death rates per 1,000 people listed in the UN spreadsheet are close to those published by Macrotrends – although not identical. This was explained by a UN spokesperson as the data being approximations and could therefore mean Macrotrends interpolated its own version by using the UN’s five-year data.

It’s important to note that these figures were published in June 2019, using data that is available up until the end of 2018 – and, for some countries, up to several years earlier. Therefore, the death rate listed in the table for 2020 is a projection based on data from years prior to the pandemic taking hold.

The UN spokesperson also told Reuters that the marginal increase seen in the projection for 2020 could be explained by global rates linked to increased population ageing and past population growth. This has nothing to do with the pandemic.


False. Worldwide death rate data from 2019 does not erode the severity of the coronavirus pandemic as the 2020 rate is a projection based on data from years prior to COVID-19 being recognised as an illness.

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