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Special report: Over 125,000 excess deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic

South AfricaCape Town | 28 January 2021 | The South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) regularly publishes the Report on Weekly Deaths in South Africa, providing information on both natural (diseases and other medical conditions), and unnatural deaths (injuries) registered on the national population register. These are used to estimate the actual number of deaths that have occurred in the country and calculate the number of excess deaths over and above the numbers that would be expected had the historical mortality trends prior to the COVID-19 pandemic continued.

During December 2020 and January 2021, the numbers increased relentlessly as the second wave of the pandemic unfolded in each province. The cumulative number of excess deaths from natural causes since 3 May 2020 had reached more than 125,000 by the 23rd January 2021. In the most recent week, there has been an apparent decline in the increase.

Weekly excess naturals
Cumulative Excess
3 May 2020 - 23 Jan 2021
27-Dec-20 – 02-Jan-21
03-Jan-21 – 9-Jan-21
10-Jan-21 – 16-Jan-21
17-Jan-21 – 23-Jan-21

According to Professor Debbie Bradshaw, Chief Specialist Scientist at the SAMRC and a co-author of the Report, the timing and geographic pattern leaves no room to question whether this is associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. “Unfortunately, it will probably be some years before we have the information about the medical cause of death and so we cannot distinguish between deaths directly associated with COVID-19 and those that may has resulted due to the health system being over-burdened” said Bradshaw. “While we are cautiously optimistic that the decrease in week 3 represents a real change and indicates the turning of in excess mortality in the current wave of the pandemic, the trend will become clearer with the data for week 4, to be released by the SAMRC on 3 February 2021.”

The team, comprising researchers from the SAMRC Burden of Disease Research Unit and academics from UCT’s Centre for Actuarial Research (CARe) note the substantial impact on older South Africans who are known to be more vulnerable to this virus. In addition, they note the close correspondence of the time of the excess deaths with the increases in confirmed COVID-19 cases in each province.

According to Professor Glenda Gray, SAMRC President and CEO, “the SAMRC has been tracking mortality for decades, and this system has enabled South Africa to be one of the few middle-income countries able to track excess deaths associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. The team is collaborating with the Department of Health and the National Institute for Communicable Diseases to set up a data linkage project to improve the reports of the numbers of confirmed COVID-19 deaths for the country.”


More about the SAMRC’s Burden of Disease Research Unit

The SAMRC’s Burden of Disease Research Unit was formed to provide information on the trends in the country’s health status as well as causes of disease for future planning to improve the health of the nation. It has developed exceptional expertise in summary health measures, health surveys, and mortality data and health informatics analysis.

The Unit publishes Report on Weekly Deaths in South Africa on its website.  

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