CHART: How Covid-19 fatalities compare with deaths under ‘normal’ conditions – Kevin Lings

Interesting (but sad), the total number of Covid-19 deaths have risen to over 210,000 in just four months. How does this compare with deaths under “normal” conditions?

By Kevin Lings*

During the earlier stage of the Covid-19 pandemic some people argued that “thousands of people die each year from flu, why does Covid-19 require such a dramatic response?” – or some similar argument. One way to judge if this is a fair response to the Covid-19 pandemic is to chart the total number of deaths (from all causes, and not just Covid-19) in 2020 and then compare this total to the average number of deaths over the past five years.

This, unfortunately, is not as easy as it sounds, because to make the analysis relevant you ideally need daily or weekly mortality data going back at least five years. Most countries do not make this information available to the public. Instead countries typically provide only monthly or yearly mortality data.

However, after much searching of data sources, one country that does provide access to reliable mortality data each week, dating back to 2010, is the UK. In addition, the UK had over 158,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases and more than 21,100 Covid-19 deaths, allowing for a meaningful gauge of how serious Covid-19 is as a pandemic.

The chart attached reflects the number of deaths in the UK each week, averaged for the past five years from 2015 to 2019. This five year weekly average is then compared with the number of deaths each week during 2020. Unfortunately, the difference between the two data series is profound. (See chart below). In fact, the data suggests that the UK is not reflecting the full extent of the Covid-19 deaths in their official estimates. This is most likely because people are dying from Covid-19 without having been tested. Stated differently, in the past two months, Covid-19 has had a massive impact of the overall mortality rate of the UK.

(Out of interest, each year the lowest number of deaths occurs in the week of Christmas Day – I assume this is partly due to a reduction in number of vehicles on the road in that week?).

Two possible counter-arguments are worth considering. The first is that more people than normal are dying in the UK because they can’t easily access health facilities due to the prevalence of Covid-19. There is probably some merit to this argument, but not enough to explain the dramatic spike in deaths.

The second counter-argument is that Covid-19 is merely accelerating the number of deaths. For this argument to have any relevance the number of deaths need to fall well below the five year average once the virus is under control – this seems unlikely but we will continue to monitor the data.

  • Kevin Lings is chief economist at Stanlib. 
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