June 24, 2022 | Press Release

COVID-19: Tens of Millions Left Bereaved Because of the Pandemic

The National Covid Memorial Wall in London. © iStockphoto.com/georgeclerk

The pandemic killed millions of people worldwide. The number of bereaved is even higher. Young people more often lost grandparents, and older people were more likely to mourn the loss of siblings. These are the results of a simulation-based study published in PNAS by an international team including MPIDR Researchers and a visiting student from the University of California, Berkeley.

Many more people died due to Covid-19 than would have without the pandemic. This excess mortality has led an even higher number of people to experience the loss of family members prematurely.

An international team of researchers including Mallika Snyder (PhD-Student at the UC Berkeley), Iván Williams (University of Buenos Aires), Diego Alburez-Gutierrez (Research Group Leader at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock) and Emilio Zagheni (Director at the MPIDR) quantified the magnitude of these pandemic-related losses. They considered which demographic groups are most likely to be affected and found consistent increases across 31 countries studied in the numbers of younger individuals losing a grandparent, and of older individuals losing a sibling.

The number of people losing kin doubled in some cases

The number of younger individuals losing a grandparent more than doubled in some cases: In the United Kingdom the expected kin loss for individuals aged 30-44 in April 2020 without the pandemic would have been 703 per 100,000. But it increased by up to 845 per 100,000 individuals, leaving 1548 per 100.000 persons aged 30-44 bereaved.

Similarly, the number of older individuals losing a sibling also more than doubled in some cases. For example, it increased by up to 511 per 100,000 persons aged 65 and older from the expected 443 per 100,000 in Poland in November 2020.

“With estimates showing in some cases a doubling of kin loss risks over the expected levels, our results help put into context the staggering toll of excess mortality and bereavement associated with COVID-19 and highlight which groups are most likely to be affected”, says Mallika Snyder. They also stress the importance of excess mortality in shaping country experiences: the 31 analyzed countries would have had similar population-adjusted projections of kin loss in the absence of COVID-19, but diverged considerably based on COVID-19 excess mortality.

Sweden and Norway provide a striking illustration of the impact of COVID-19 excess mortality. While the countries have many similarities in their age and kinship structures, reflected in the similar rates of kin loss they might have expected in the absence of COVID-19, Sweden saw much higher excess mortality during the pandemic. That led to higher kin loss in Sweden than in Norway during the whole period analyzed.

Demographic microsimulations combined with mortality data

“Our focus on kinship underlines the fact that each death related to COVID-19 was, in fact, experienced as a loss by multiple bereaved relatives. The scale of COVID-related loss is substantially higher than the scale of COVID-related mortality”, says Diego Alburez-Gutierrez.

The researchers complemented estimates of numbers of bereaved individuals associated with COVID-19 mortality by extending a set of existing demographic microsimulations from the SOCSIM platform with data from the United Nations World Population Prospects and the Human Mortality Database’s Short-term Mortality Fluctuations Data series to consider how pandemic-associated excess mortality affected the number of individuals experiencing losses in their close family networks, across 31 countries, on a monthly basis between March 2020 and June 2021.

Research project started during a research stay at the MPIDR

“This study was possible thanks to advances in fundamental demographic research produced across institutions and over decades. They include computationally-intensive simulators and high-quality demographic data”, says Emilio Zagheni.

The seeds for this project were planted during a virtual research visit by Mallika Snyder to the MPIDR in Summer 2020. “As a result, it has benefited tremendously from MPIDR’s remarkable research community from the start. It seems very fitting to finish the article, and bring this research to fruition, while on an in-person research visit in Rostock almost two years later!”, says Mallika Snyder. She adds: “The most helpful part has been more opportunities to learn from my incredible coauthors. MPIDR is also a wonderful place to work on a paper, with so much inspiring research to learn about at seminars and roundtables.”

Original Publication

Snyder, M., Alburez-Gutierrez, D., Williams, I., Zagheni, E.: Estimates from 31 countries show the significant impact of COVID-19 excess mortality on the incidence of family bereavement. PNAS (2022). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.220268611

Authors and Affiliations

Mallika Snyder, University of California, Berkeley

Diego Alburez-Gutierrez, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock

Iván Williams, University of Buenos Aires

Emilio Zagheni, Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock


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MPIDR-Authors of the Paper

The Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR) in Rostock is one of the leading demographic research centers in the world. It's part of the Max Planck Society, the internationally renowned German research society.