Workers wearing biosecurity equipment prepare graves for alleged victims of the new coronavirus Covid-19, at the San Diego Cemetery, in the Colonial Center in Quito, on July 21, 2020. (Photo by Cristina Vega RHOR / AFP)

False claims circulate that global COVID-19 fatalities have surpassed 1.6 million

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A Facebook post that made an exaggerated claim in May 2020 about the global death toll from the novel coronavirus has been amplified across the world, especially on social media accounts posting religious content. The most recent versions of the post claim that more than 1.6 million people have died from COVID-19, but this is false; the real number of deaths counted is currently less than half of that.

A Facebook user named Sanni Pee published the post in Nigeria on July 9, 2020, alleging that COVID-19 deaths have exceeded 1.6 million. The post, shared more than 600 times, includes an image of two popular Nigerian movie stars -- Chinedu Ikedieze and Osita Iheme.

A screenshot taken on July 27, 2020, showing the false Facebook post

“Covid 19 has killed over 1.6million people around the world But, God kept you alive. Just use 10seconds to ‘THANK GOD’ (sic),” reads the text embedded in the image, which was reposted in numerous Facebook posts in Nigeria and Ghana

The claim had circulated online with the same tally weeks earlier in different posts published across the world, including this one shared in Burundi on June 25, 2020. 

Using the social media monitoring tool CrowdTangle, AFP Fact Check discovered an even earlier version of the claim in a Facebook post shared on May 31, 2020, in the Philippines.

“COVID has killed 500k+ people in the world and you are alive.dont forget to thank God (sic),” reads the post. At the time, the death toll from COVID-19 was about 370,000. 

It was after this post that a raft of pro-religion social media accounts, archived here, here and here, updated the number of fatalities to 1.6 million and spread the claim in different formats, while asking people to thank God for keeping them alive. 

A screenshot taken on July 28, 2020, showing some of the claim’s formats

AFP Fact Check found some of the earliest toll updates here and here, as well as this one that has been shared more than 67,000 times. Most of the comments in the posts suggest the users of the social networks believe the claim, while a few differ. 

Meanwhile, the posts do not mention any source for their claims.

There are concerns that the novel coronavirus has killed more people in the world than tolls announced officially by governments. “In many parts of the world, official death tolls undercount the total number of fatalities,” The Economist stated on July 15, 2020, in a data-led report on  COVID-19 excess deaths.

It offered various reasons for this, including the effect of victims who did not test positive for the virus before dying from it combined with the challenges in documenting COVID-19 fatalities.

One African example of unreliable government reporting is Tanzania, where the public release of data related to COVID-19 stopped more than two months ago when a total of 21 deaths had been noted.

Official COVID-19 deaths lower than 1.6 million

Official COVID-19 fatalities documented by Johns Hopkins University, the World Health Organization (WHO) and AFP’s own tally show that global deaths from COVID-19 have not surpassed 1.6 million.

"Globally, as of 10:34am CEST, 28 July 2020, there have been 16,301,736 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 650,069 deaths, reported to WHO," the global health authority stated in its COVID-19 web tracker.

John Hopkins University puts global coronavirus deaths at 654,327 as of July 28, 2020. Meanwhile, according to an AFP tally from 216 countries, compiled with regular updates from our global bureaus, 654,477 people have died from the virus worldwide as of July 28, 2020, with more than 16 million confirmed cases recorded. 

Global COVID-19 deaths tallied by AFP as of July 28, 2020

The WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic in March 2020 after more than 118,000 cases were counted in 114 countries, and 4,291 people had lost their lives.