Carina Koen
4 minute read
23 Jul 2020
1:22 pm

Natural deaths are spiking in SA way beyond official Covid-19 stats

Carina Koen

The SAMRC and the University of Cape Town's Centre for Actuarial Research found that excess deaths between 6 May and 14 July came to more than 17 000.

File image. Graves are dug in the Muslim quarter of the Westpark Cemetery, after health authorities ordered more graves to be dug in preparation for an expected surge in coronavirus related deaths, in Johannesburg, South Africa, 15 July 2020. Picture: EPA-EFE/Kim Ludbrook

South Africa has recorded a jump of nearly 60% in the overall number of natural deaths in the past few weeks, suggesting a much higher toll of coronavirus-related fatalities than officially reported.

According to the Health Ministry, South Africa recorded a total of 5 940 Covid-19 related deaths as of Wednesday, 22 July. This is at odds with research findings by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) and the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Actuarial Research, which found that excess deaths between 6 May and 14 July came to more than 17 000.

“In the past weeks, the numbers have shown a relentless increase – by the second week of July, there were 59% more deaths from natural causes than would have been expected based on historical data. It also means that reported deaths have shown a pattern that is completely different to those indicated by historical trends,” the report stated.

The research comes hot on the heels of the South African Funeral Practitioners Association telling The Citizen they can hardly keep up as they are handling three to four times more bodies than usual.

“To break it down for you. In June last year, which is the peak season for deaths, we normally would have done about 70 deaths in a month. But I have already surpassed my number. I have done over 150 burials in the last two weeks of July. So again, remember that this positive cases will only be confirmed positive when they come from a hospital and they have their test result,” the association’s spokesperson and director of Sopema Funerals, Monageng Legae, told The Citizen last week.

South Africa weekly deaths from all causes, 1 January – 14 July 2020. Source: SAMRC

The co-author of the report, Professor Debbie Bradshaw, said “the weekly death reports have revealed a huge discrepancy between the country’s confirmed Covid-19 deaths and number of excess natural deaths”.

According to the report, the surveillance also highlighted the rapid decrease in unnatural deaths with the implementation of a hard lockdown, and the return to usual numbers following the lifting of a hard lockdown and the restrictions on alcohol, with a sudden increase in the first week of June.

“The rise in numbers of deaths from natural causes in July in Gauteng has confirmed that the epidemic has set in the province.”

Here you can see the difference between excess deaths and the official Covid-19 deaths report, countrywide:

The excess natural deaths reported are considerably higher than the official Covid-19 deaths report,
ranging from 1.6 times higher in the Western Cape to 10 times higher in Mpumalanga.

In Gauteng, the situation looked like this:

This was the situation in the Western Cape, according to the research:

And in the Eastern Cape, where official reported numbers continue to rise at an alarming rate, the situation was like this:

“It is important to note that the excess cumulative numbers of natural deaths include more than direct and indirect Covid-19 deaths. In particular they include deaths arising from constraints on health resources.”

Here is a breakdown of the situation as of 14 July 2020 in every province:

Excess natural deaths compared with confirmed Covid-19 deaths as of 14 July 2020.

But what is the reason for the discrepancies in the numbers?

The authors of the report said they consider that the gap between the excess natural deaths and the confirmed Covid-19 deaths was probably due to:

  • People dying from Covid-19 before they get to the healthcare facility. This may be due to lack of transport, delays in transport and/or hospitals being unable to receive them.
  • People dying from Covid-19 but the death not being reported as such. This may be due to test results not being available at the time of death and/or challenges in the provincial Covid-19 reporting systems.
  • People dying from non Covid-19 conditions because the health services have been re-orientated to Covid-19. Examples include people who have not been diagnosed with TB and others with current TB who have defaulted on treatment for fear of attending the health services.

According to SAMRC President and CEO Professor Glenda Gray, “the SAMRC has been tracking mortality for decades in South Africa, and this system has identified excess deaths associated with the Covid-19 epidemic. These may be attributed to both Covid-19 deaths as well non-Covid-19 due to other diseases such as TB, HIV and non-communicable diseases, as health services are re-orientated to support this health crisis.”

The main points from the latest report for excess mortality up to 14 July are:

  • The Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal have seen the most excess natural deaths. These are also the hardest-hit provinces in terms of official Covid-19 deaths and cases.
  • Between 6 May and 14 July, excess deaths from natural causes were 17 090 for persons one year and older.
  • For people between the ages of one and 59, the excess number of deaths is 5 889, and 11 175 for people 60 and older.

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