From the outset of this pandemic, one of the biggest questions has been “How dangerous is it really?” or “How much more dangerous than normal flu is it?”. Initial estimates varied wildly, because we really just did not know. It did start to become clear that more Covid-19 was more dangerous than seasonal flu, but just HOW much more dangerous was not really clear (and indeed, is still debated).

Excess deaths is a statistical measure of how many deaths were recorded, in excess of what would have been expected based on historical data. We are now starting to see this data. It’s a very technical field with actuaries and epidemiologists and other experts sometimes taking different approaches. It’s also a field where we will learn more in time as more and better data becomes available. But the situation is roughly this:

  • SA has a population of 60m
  • 600 000 (or about 10% of total population) people die in SA each year (in a normal pre-Covid year)
  • In 2020 we saw some 660 000 deaths reported
  • The excess death rate for 2020 was therefore 660 000 – 600 000 = 60 000

These are preliminary figures and we’ve rounded them off to simplify things a bit. But for general purposes these figures are about right and serve well, for now at any rate.

You will notice that excess deaths for 2020, at 60 000, is higher than the number of deaths officially recorded as being due to Covid-19 – that official number is around 30 000. So what caused the other 30 000 deaths? These are likely to have been Covid deaths also (but not recorded as such) because the timings are too matched and neat for any other explanation to be likely, although we should note that exerts are debating this, and we may yet learn more.

It looks like the pandemic increased SA’s death rate by about 10% (600 000 deaths to 660 000 deaths) in 2020. This is clearly a tragedy but some would argue it is not at the scale of a catastrophe and some would suggest that, with hindsight, we may find the various reactions (lockdowns) to be excessive / over-reaction. We offer no opinion on that but we do suggest you follow this aspect carefully over the coming weeks and months, since excess deaths is a good measure of the pandemic’s severity.