That number could rise to about 250,000 by the end of this year, according to the median estimate from a survey of experts conducted in May. Respondents’ projections varied widely, though, and predicting the pandemic’s death toll in 2021 and beyond is even more difficult. “I don’t know of (and wouldn’t particularly trust) any estimate of [deaths] by the ‘end of the pandemic,’ whenever that might be,” Nicholas Reich, a biostatistician at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and one of the organizers of the survey, wrote to me in an email.
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Although the pandemic has caused the deaths of many people who otherwise wouldn’t have died this year, it has in theory also kept alive some people who otherwise might have died—if indirectly. During economic slowdowns, mortality rates typically decline in wealthy countries. The drop-off in deaths is thought to be caused, in part, by a drop-off in daily activity; car crashes and workplace accidents, for instance, were responsible for fewer deaths during and after the Great Recession.
That said, the number of people saved by the relative inactivity of the pandemic is far smaller than the number whose lives it takes. “My sense is that the effect of the [disease] on deaths completely swamps those other forces,” Tom Vogl, a development economist at UC San Diego, told me. Indeed, a recent study found that during March, April, and May, the number of deaths—from any cause—in the U.S. was about 122,000 higher than would have been expected in the absence of a pandemic.
In fact, the pandemic has so thoroughly warped the nature of everyday life that previous patterns may not hold. Even though fewer cars have been on the road in the past few months, the drop-off in traffic has been so precipitous that in some states, deaths caused by car crashes have gone up, apparently because many people are driving at much higher speeds than usual.
Whatever the death toll ends up being, it will impact some groups more than others: A disproportionate number of those killed by COVID-19 are older Americans and racial minorities. And the consequences of deaths caused by the pandemic go beyond what any number can capture. As one recent study indicates, roughly 1.2 million Americans have now had a close relative die of the disease. “For every [COVID-19] death,” Emily Smith-Greenaway, one of the study’s authors and a sociologist at the University of Southern California, told me, an average of “nine individuals are left without their grandparent, parent, spouse, sibling, or child.” The personal effects of the pandemic can’t be measured.
Just as the pandemic has slowed people’s movement at the level of cities and states, it has also slowed movement at the level of nations. “We’ve seen almost a complete shutting down of immigration,” Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, said. “That’s because our consulates abroad aren’t interviewing people for visas; it’s because we’ve basically shut down the borders to asylum seekers.”