Sunday, November 01, 2020

Tracking the true cost of the Coronavirus in human lives

The Economist magazine has updated their estimates of the number of excess deaths around the world since the onset of the COVID-19 Pandemic.

It makes powerful and depressing reading.

Their data on European countries suggest that. quote, "compared with a historical baseline of 2009-19, Europe has suffered some deadly flu seasons since 2016—but that the death toll this year from covid-19 is far greater. Overall, the number of excess deaths across the continent since March is about 170,000. Though most of those victims have been older than 65, the number of deaths among Europeans aged 45-64 was 40% higher than usual in early April."


Key lessons from the data include

  • Some countries have done better than others but almost everywhere has been badly hit.
  • Countries which used strategies designed to fight an infection which behaves like SARS have generally done better in this particular pandemic than those which used a strategy designed to fight a disease which acts like flu. Of course, we don't want to be always fighting the previous war: there is no guarantee that the next pandemic will act like either.
  • This is not just a disease which only kills the old and people who were going to die soon anyway. Look at the last sentence of the quote above about what the pandemic did during the first wave to the total number of deaths among Europeans aged from 45 to 64.


Here is the Economist's table for the fifteen countries with the highest rate of excess deaths among those nations which publish enough reliable data for this calculation to be done at all. There are huge swathes of the world, and countries such as Iran or China, where lack of trustworthy data makes it impossible even to attempt to calculate equivalent excess death statistics.

Excess deaths since country or city’s first 50 covid deaths

Last updated on October 23rd, 14:49 UTC

COUNTRY / REGION
TIME PERIOD
COVID-19 DEATHS
EXCESS DEATHS
EXCESS DEATHS
PER 100K PEOPLE
Peru
Apr 1st-Sep 30th
32,433
76,878
234
Ecuador
Mar 1st-Sep 30th
11,355
34,067
198
Mexico
Mar 29th-Aug 29th
63,803
158,384
151
Spain
Mar 4th-Oct 20th
34,051
56,394
121
Belgium
Mar 18th-Sep 29th
9,975
11,327
99
Britain
Mar 14th-Oct 9th
58,240
65,557
99
Italy
Feb 26th-Aug 25th
34,738
51,554
87
United States
Mar 8th-Oct 3rd
206,413
277,477
85
Portugal
Mar 25th-Oct 20th
2,180
7,024
68
Chile
Apr 8th-Oct 20th
13,658
11,892
68
Sweden
Mar 18th-Oct 6th
5,891
6,382
62
Netherlands
Mar 16th-Oct 18th
6,731
10,117
58
Russia
Apr 1st-Jul 31st
13,946
83,358
57
South Africa
Apr 15th-Oct 13th
18,001
32,960
56
Brazil
Mar 22nd-Aug 15th
107,214
104,333
50



In countries like Mexico or Russia where there is a huge gap between the official total for COVID-19 deaths and the number of excess deaths compared with what would have been expected since the pandemic hit, the most likely explanation for the discrepancy is that the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic is greatly underestimated by the official figures.

However, in countries where the two figures are much closer, such as Britain, it is likely that at least a significant fraction of the difference between the official COVID-19 death toll and the number of excess deaths is the net indirect effect of the Coronavirus. 

This would include people who have died of other conditions for which they would have been successfully been treated had the pandemic not disrupted their care or scared them away from seeking help, and it also includes the negative impacts on health of the measures taken against COVID-19 such as lockdowns - lack of exercise, depression, and suicide among others.

Sweden, one of the few countries which has never enforced a lockdown,  is often cited by both advocates and critics of lockdown as providing evidence which they think supports their case. The Economist's statisticians comments on Sweden are as follows:

 
"Sweden was one of the few countries that did not enforce a lockdown at all. It has endured a lower death rate than Britain or Spain, but a higher one than neighbouring Norway or Denmark, which enacted more stringent policies."   

I don't think that result fits too well with either the "Sweden didn't have a lockdown and they're doing marvellously so we shouldn't either" narrative or the "Sweden didn't have a lockdown and that decision  was catastrophic" narrative. I suggest what it demonstrates is the need for caution when comparing statistics from very different countries.

You can read the full article on the latest Economist tracker here.

 


No comments: