SA's excess deaths to hit 250,000 mark in the Covid-19 cataclysm

Dave Chambers Cape Town bureau chief
SA has suffered a quarter of a million excess deaths during the Covid-19 pandemic.
SA has suffered a quarter of a million excess deaths during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Image: 123rf/marekvalovic

The number of “excess deaths” since Covid-19 got a grip on SA is poised to pass the 250,000 mark.

This week's estimate from the SA Medical Research Council said there had been 244,846 mortalities beyond what historical trends predicted.

The count went up to Aug. 21, when the previous week yielded 850 excess deaths per day from natural causes.

If excess mortality continued at the same rate this week, the 250,000 mark would have been passed on Friday.

In May, when the SAMRC team behind the weekly reports wrote about its work in the SA Medical Journal, it said: “The temporal trend and age pattern of the excess deaths suggest that most of these deaths are directly due to or related to Covid-19.”

It also said SA's Covid-19 mortality rate for 2020 was probably among the top five in the world.

The official Covid-19 death toll by Aug. 21 was 79,251, almost exactly a third of the excess death estimate. By Friday it had risen to 81,187.

SA is the 17th worst-affected country in terms of case numbers and the 16th worst-affected in terms of deaths. It is the worst-affected African country, with more than a third of the continent's cases.

Excess deaths mounted in the week ending August 21 after falling for four weeks.
Excess deaths mounted in the week ending August 21 after falling for four weeks.
Image: SA Medical Research Council

The week ending Aug. 21 saw an uptick in estimated excess deaths after a decline since the peak of the third wave of the local Covid-19 outbreak in mid-July.

Three-quarters of excess deaths from natural causes since the phenomenon was first noted at the beginning of May 2020 have been among over-60s.

Even though the vaccinations have been available to this group since May 18 2021, the SAMRC team said the pattern of excess deaths among over-60s was similar to that in the overall population.

“It remains difficult to quantify the impact of vaccines,” it said in its latest report.

How excess deaths have affected the provinces.
How excess deaths have affected the provinces.
Image: SA Medical Research Council

The national excess death rate since May 2020 has reached 411 per 100,000 people, and the latest report says the provinces with the highest numbers of excess deaths are Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.

When provinces are ordered according to death rates per capita, the Eastern Cape emerges as the most seriously affected province, with 593 excess deaths per 100,000 people, followed by the Northern Cape and Free State.

Gauteng (345/100,000) and the Western Cape (346/100,000) are the provinces with the lowest excess death rates per capita., but when the age distributions of the provinces are taken into account the Western Cape emerges as the province where residents are least likely to die as a result of Covid-19.

The number of unnatural deaths — which are due to incidents such as homicides and road accidents — has escalated since the easing of the alcohol sales ban at the end of July

During the alcohol ban, unnatural deaths slumped well below predictions based on historical mortality rates.

“However, coinciding with the unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, and continued taxi violence in the Western Cape, the number of unnatural deaths increased to the level of the upper prediction bound during week 28 (July 11—17 2021) and dropped to below the lower prediction bound [the following week] once the unrest had subsided,” said the MRC team.


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