What does ‘excess deaths’ mean – and can it give a clearer picture of the number of coronavirus fatalities?

coronavirus covid

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Charlotte Edmond, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • Each country records deaths slightly differently – the excess mortality measure smoothes out some of these discrepancies and helps us compare countries more accurately.
  • There was a substantial number of excess deaths in the first half of 2020, particularly among the over-65s, and the peak is far higher than seen during previous influenza peaks.
  • There are gaps between official COVID-19 death counts and excess mortality rates. As more details emerge, further analysis will help countries work out the root of these differences.

The daily published number of infections and deaths as a result of coronavirus has become a depressingly familiar snapshot of the impact the pandemic is having globally. But trying to extrapolate the total global death toll is not as simple as it first seems. And trying to compare the number of COVID-19-related deaths by country can be misleading and confusing.

Each country has its own way of recording deaths – and its own time frame for doing so. Some governments only count deaths in hospitals, for example. And without widespread testing it’s not easy to keep a check on the number of confirmed cases. Added to this, there are also differences in how causes of death are recorded: coronavirus may be the trigger but death can result from a wide range of complications.

 

This also means that trying to draw conclusions about which countries have managed the outbreak best, and what strategies are working, is difficult.

The concept of ‘excess deaths’ is increasingly being used as a better and more consistent way of measuring the virus’ impact. In simple terms, this is the volume of deaths that occur over and above the expected normal for that country and time period, based on historic averages.

Comparing a country with its own past means that factors such as population demographics, disease incidence, poverty, inequality and the effectiveness of healthcare systems are less liable to skew the data. A measure of excess deaths also tends to smooth out any differences in the way deaths are counted. It allows us to see the full impact of COVID-19 on mortality, including deaths that were not directly attributable to the virus.

And it is clear to see that there has been a peak in death rates in the first half of 2020.

Weekly excess deaths
Weekly excess deaths.
Image: The Health Foundation

A bigger picture

For example, at the highest peak, Spain had 155% more deaths in a week than usual, and the UK had 109% more, according to UK charitable body The Health Foundation. As the chart above shows, as the number of infections around Europe declines, the wave of excess deaths in each country recedes. Germany, which introduced a contact tracing system early on, has had a notably small number of excess deaths.

EuroMOMO, a European network which monitors morality and excess deaths as a result of seasonal influenza and other public health risks, has pooled figures from several countries to give a bigger picture.

The data shows that from March 2020 onwards, there were substantial excess deaths, with the highest mortality among those aged 65 and over. There were also marked excess deaths in the 45-64 age bracket. And some countries – notably England and Spain – also saw excess deaths in the 15-44 age group. There was no excess mortality seen in children under 15.

Estimations of all-cause mortality.
Estimations of all-cause mortality.
Image: EuroMOMO

EuroMOMO analysis shows that at the peak level of mortality in Europe, there was an excess of 35,800 deaths, the vast majority of which were of people over 65. In comparison, the highest excess mortality in any week during the previous four years was 16,165 during the severe 2016/17 influenza season.

Weekly excess deaths of all ages across 24 participating European countries, including the UK and Italy.
Weekly excess deaths of all ages across 24 participating European countries, including the UK and Italy.

Another way of looking at the data is to compare the ratio of excess deaths to usual deaths. This gives a picture of how much the relative risk of dying has changed over the pandemic time period.

Excess deaths across European countries.
Excess deaths across European countries.
Image: The Health Foundation
coronavirus, health, COVID19, pandemic

What is the World Economic Forum doing to manage emerging risks from COVID-19?

The first global pandemic in more than 100 years, COVID-19 has spread throughout the world at an unprecedented speed. At the time of writing, 4.5 million cases have been confirmed and more than 300,000 people have died due to the virus.

As countries seek to recover, some of the more long-term economic, business, environmental, societal and technological challenges and opportunities are just beginning to become visible.

To help all stakeholders – communities, governments, businesses and individuals understand the emerging risks and follow-on effects generated by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with Marsh and McLennan and Zurich Insurance Group, has launched its COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications – a companion for decision-makers, building on the Forum’s annual Global Risks Report.

The report reveals that the economic impact of COVID-19 is dominating companies’ risks perceptions.

Companies are invited to join the Forum’s work to help manage the identified emerging risks of COVID-19 across industries to shape a better future. Read the full COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications report here, and our impact story with further information.

Inconsistencies between countries

In many countries, the excess mortality rates exceed the reported COVID-19 death toll by some margin. This is influenced by when countries started reporting figures, the level of testing and how deaths are recorded.

In countries with less testing and treating capacity, it is likely that the divide between the official coronavirus death toll and the excess death rate will be greater. For example, analysis done by the Economist magazine suggests that Jakarta’s reported death toll may only be around 12% of the reality, based on data about burials. The New York Times, meanwhile, notes that in March to May, Ecuador has recorded about 10,500 more deaths than usual compared to the same period in the past three years – about three times the reported number of COVID-19 deaths.

Not all countries have the capacity to report sufficiently consistent and accurate data to calculate excess mortality. There is also no recognised single source of excess mortality data.

Although there remain inconsistencies in the way some countries report excess deaths, as more accurate and detailed figures emerge, it will become clearer what some of the causes of excess deaths are in different countries. For example, how many are actually coronavirus deaths, and how many can be linked to overloaded healthcare systems, or delays in seeking treatment for other diseases?

Until more detailed analysis can be done, excess deaths can provide countries with a blunt measure of how well their efforts to curb the virus are working.

the sting Milestones

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

COVID-19 pandemic: The war inside our heads

Asking for more restriction on intra EU immigration: Unproductive and politically dangerous

Coronavirus: a Disease that spreads as fastly as its fake news

Can the Tokyo Olympics help bring the world together?

European research priorities for 2021-2027 agreed with member states

The Eurogroup protects Germany and blames others

Myanmar military target civilians in deadly helicopter attack, UN rights office issues war crimes warning

The price of centralization of human resources for health

Children of ISIL terrorists likely held in ‘secret detention facilities’, UN human rights office warns

EU: Divided they stand on immigration and Trump hurricanes

COVID-19 and the pursuit of financial inclusion in Pakistan

Coronavirus: Commission launches data sharing platform for researchers

Infringement – Commission takes Italy to Court for its incomplete regime of access to genetic resources

Human rights champions from across the world receive top UN prize

Germany may have a stable and more cooperative government

How income-sharing agreements can improve access to education

Lagarde discusses the European Central Bank’s policy revamp with MEPs

Macro-Financial Assistance: Europe’s way to control Ukraine?

ECB asks for more subsidies to banks

COVID – ACT III, When do I get off the stage?

SRHR and Ending HIV : Can one be achieved without the other ?

Sign language protects ‘linguistic identity and cultural diversity’ of all users, says UN chief

Who really cares about the 26.2 million of EU jobless?

19th EU-China Summit: A historical advance in the Chino-European rapprochement

‘Foreign children’ in overwhelmed Syrian camp need urgent international help, says top UN official

EP survey: EU recovery funds should only go to countries respecting Rule of Law

FROM THE FIELD: West Africa’s wishful gold diggers

Moving from commitment to action on LGBTI equality

Tokyo 2020 Olympics: from cardboard beds to recycled medals, how the Games are going green

Commission’s action plan: financial world mandatory links to environmental targets

Fostering intergenerational solidarity and cooperation through age-friendly environments: the right answer to Europe’s demographic challenge

The Eurogroup+ is born to govern the EU Banking Union

European Youth Forum demands immediate action & binding agreement on climate change

How to create a transparent digital economy and rebuild consumer trust

Coronavirus reinforces the importance of empathy

To all far-right partisans who exploit Charlie Hebdo atrocity: a peaceful reply given by a peaceful student

For how long and at what cost can the ECB continue printing trillions to keep euro area going?

What is the European Super League and how would it work?

State aid: Commission approves German scheme for very high capacity broadband networks in Bavaria

To feed 10 billion people, we must preserve biodiversity. Here’s how

Ramped-up emergency preparedness, part of ‘changing the DNA’ of the UN’s health agency

New Report Offers Global Outlook on Efforts to Beat Plastic Pollution

How African countries can benefit from plan to reform global tax

Destabilizing Lebanon after burning Syria; plotting putsch at home: King and Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia

COVID-19 is an unmissable chance to put people and the planet first

Take care of your borders and then expand them

The Juncker Plan at work: bringing investment back on track in Europe

Africa-Europe Alliance: European Commission committed to a sustainable African agri-food sector

Mindfulness: a freedom we can still have in the pandemic

If you live in a big city you already smoke every day

Employment and Social Developments in Europe: 2018 review confirms positive trends but highlights challenges, in particular linked to automation and digitalisation

Safer products: EP and Council close deal to beef up checks and inspections

Coronavirus global response: EU Humanitarian Air Bridge to Iraq and new funding

Top UN Syria envoy hails ‘impressive’ start to historic talks in Geneva

UN rights chief slams ‘unconscionable’ US border policy of separating migrant children from parents

EU-US resume trade negotiations under the spell of NSA surveillance

The world’s economy is only 9% circular. We must be bolder about saving resources

How many websites are there?

State aid: Commission approves €650 million Polish support to LOT in context of coronavirus outbreak

Nepal faces a crisis as COVID-19 stems the flow of remittances

More Stings?

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s