Global deaths from Covid-19 as bad as ever, says economic historian

Prof Adam Tooze: ‘7,000 deaths a day are occurring as a result of the pandemic’

Seven thousand people a day are currently dying from Covid-19 globally, a conference has heard.

Economic historian and author Prof Adam Tooze said the perception has grown that we are behind the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, but the reality is globally that things are as bad as they were in the spring of 2020.

Prof Tooze is the author of the book Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy which was published in September.

He was speaking at a virtual and in-person conference titled The Challenge of Mobilising Ireland in a post-Covid era. It was organised by Vision Consulting.


The number of people dying on a daily basis from the disease is comparable to the first wave of the virus, he stated, though he stressed there were reporting issues in the spring that do not exist now.

There were between seven and 13 million excess deaths worldwide by May this year since the Covid-19 pandemic began and those figures have risen by between three to four million since, he estimated.

“Covid is a disaster of global proportions even if we in the rich countries have managed to claw back our position.”

Covid-19 took the world by surprise in a way that it should not have done. He compared it to a “grey rhino” - a danger that was looming that we chose to ignore.

Scientists had warned as far back as the 1970s that a global pandemic could spread very quickly given the ease of travel everywhere.

He described the impact of Covid-19 in the world last year as similar to the “outer scenarios” of the most disastrous projections about climate change 20 or 30 years from now.

The global economy fell by 20 per cent in a matter of weeks far dwarfing the fall in global output during the global economic crisis of 2008 and 2009.

“It is beyond the kin of economics or economic history to date. There has never been a moment in history when so many economies were in recession.”

The discovery of vaccines were one of the "glorious achievements of the human spirit". However, he said vaccine inequality globally was having an impact with the Omicron variant emerging from southern Africa. "We cannot say that we were not warned about this," he stated.

He likened the failure to distribute vaccines to the developing world as akin to being offered a lottery prize and saying you did not have the money to pay for the ticket.

Department of Health secretary-general Robert Watt said lockdowns might have been avoided had western countries taken the threat of Covid-19 seriously last spring.

The lesson from Prof Tooze's book was that the rest of the world had underestimated what was happening in China during the early stages of the pandemic. Countries should have acted three or four weeks prior to when they did.

“That was a fairly significant mistake”, he said, “but I remember being in those meetings in late February and early March and there was different views about this.”

He suggested the “abundance of caution” principle should have been provided earlier and added that if there is a next time, the Government will act differently.

He told the conference that shortly after the pandemic happened, he had a Zoom call with the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance and they agreed to spend hundreds of millions on State support for people who had lost their jobs.

“Within a matter of a week hundreds of millions of Euro landed in the bank accounts of individuals and businesses, allowing them to continue.”

Mr Watt was the secretary general at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform at the time.

“That was unimaginable in previous periods. Our ability to learn or to adapt in the digital world provides opportunities.”

He admitted governments are frequently “being pushed around by today’s events” and needed to think more strategically about risk.

However, he said the reality of the world was often at odds with the “reality of people’s expectations - maybe in part fed by the political debate, the media debate, by the Twitter debate which is generating a lot of mistrust in government and a lot of disappointed expectations.

“How do we calibrate people’s expectations to what the future might look like?”

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times