EXPLAINER | Why has 11 000 'excess deaths' been recorded between May and June

 A general view of a funeral in Mahikeng.
A general view of a funeral in Mahikeng.
Papi Morake, Gallo Images
  • The SAMRC recorded almost 11 000 "excess deathsfrom natural causes in its weekly death report. 
  • This means there were more deaths from natural cases than anticipated. 
  • The SAMRC's chief scientist said most of the excess deaths could be Covid-19-related. 

The South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) has recorded almost 11 000 "excess deaths" from natural causes in its weekly death report last week.

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"Excess deaths" meant that nationally, from 6 May to 7 July, 10 994 more deaths from natural causes were recorded than anticipated, the report said. 

It also means reported deaths have shown a pattern that is completely different from those indicated by historical trends.

"The weekly death reports have revealed a huge discrepancy between the country's confirmed Covid-19 deaths and a number of excess natural deaths," the SAMRC's chief specialist scientist, Professor Debbie Bradshaw, said in the report. 

ALSO READ | Researchers find 'huge discrepancy' between reported number of Covid-19 fatalities and excess deaths

News24 took a look at what is meant by "excess deaths", why there is such a big difference, and how excess deaths are calculated. 

What does "excess deaths" mean? 

In an interview with the Department of Health, Bradshaw said they found a gap between the number of Covid-19 deaths and excess deaths mostly prevalent in the Eastern Cape and Gauteng.

"Excess deaths are the deaths that are over and above what you would expect to have. It's been used, particularly in looking at flu epidemics where there's a sudden surge in the number of deaths that's just beyond what you'd expect," she added.

There are a number of ways to calculate excess deaths. Some analysts use the excess above the expected number based on historical data. Meanwhile, others take the number above a threshold such as the upper prediction that is significantly higher than expected.

What caused such a big increase in "excess deaths"? 

Bradshaw said it was too early to tell what the main cause of death was, but it would probably largely be due to Covid-19 and the lockdown.

She added similar gaps in excess deaths have been reported in other countries. 

"It's important for us to do more work to get some research done to find exactly what's causing that. It could be that there are people with Covid-19 who are not getting to health facilities, so they are not getting into the statistics. 

"People are dying at home whether it's access to transport to get to a facility or choosing not to go to a health facility."

Bradshaw said her team had seen a big impact of the hard lockdown on the number of people who were dying that was particularly noticeable in unnatural deaths.

Professor Debbie Bradshaw (Screenshot, Youtube SA
Professor Debbie Bradshaw.

She added unnatural deaths include road accidents, murders, suicide, and other accidents.

"It is important to point out that although the bulk of these estimates of the 'excess deaths' are due to Covid-19 and related causes, a proportion could be due other natural causes associated with a relaxing of lockdown."

She believed it was due to having fewer people on the roads and probably alcohol restrictions during Level 5 lockdown which resulted in an immediate drop to almost a half of what it was previously in the unnatural deaths.

"But, in the natural deaths, that is the deaths from ageing or from diseases - cancers or TB. We also saw there was a bit of a drop, not to the extent of the unnatural."

Meanwhile, the cases of flu, which usually peak in winter, were suppressed by the Covid-19 lockdown. 

"There has been no sign of flu this year, the social distancing, hand-washing, probably also wearing of masks would have affected that as well," Bradshaw said. "It's probably affected other infectious diseases as well".

How are excess deaths calculated? 

She added the SAMRC had been receiving data from the Department of Home Affairs for many years of the registered deaths in the country, which is used to paint a picture of the mortality trends.

"But during February, March, this year, with the possibility of the Covid epidemic we realised that would need to be speeded up and we investigated how to get data more quickly and process it."

Since March, they have been studying the data and issuing a weekly report on the number of deaths that are registered.

"Over the weeks, we realised there's a pattern during the year, with the number of deaths going up in winter that is often associated with the flu. But it is also related to other conditions that increase during winter," Bradshaw said. 

"So, we used historic data to predict what would be expected for each week and we've been tracking the weekly number of deaths against what would be expected."

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