In many places, as in Mexico, coronavirus has led to more overall deaths. But in a select few countries, the opposite is happening. Picture: /Fernando Llano/AP
In many places, as in Mexico, coronavirus has led to more overall deaths. But in a select few countries, the opposite is happening. Picture: /Fernando Llano/AP

Place where COVID means more people live

Coronavirus has caused a spike in deaths worldwide. In a single week last month, 10,000 more Britons than usual passed away and there was a 526 per cent rise in deaths in New York compared to the year before.

Yet in a select few nations something very unexpected is happening. Far from causing more fatalities, COVID-19 is causing fewer.

From Norway to South Africa, there are some people living and breathing who would otherwise have died were it not for a bizarre side effect of coronavirus.

This aberration can be gleaned by looking at the number of "excess deaths" which is rapidly being seen as a more reliable indicator of total fatality due to the inconsistency of how different countries record COVID-19 deaths.

For instance, both Britain and France have only recently counted COVID-19 deaths in care homes in their daily totals while others, like Belgium and Australia, have all along.

The excess number of deaths above the average puts coronavirus fatality rates into proportion and also gives an indication of hidden cases if, for instance, the rise in deaths is more than the number of fatalities assigned to COVID-19.

"Excess deaths is a measure I find it tragically useful. If you look at the UK you might read about several thousand people dying in a week but you don't know if that's a lot or a little," RMIT computer scientist Professor Mark Sanderson told news.com.au.

"But when you see that number is double what you'd expect for that week, you suddenly realise this is a big deal."

In many places, as in Mexico (above), coronavirus has led to more overall deaths. But in a select few countries, the opposite is happening. Picture: Fernando Llano/AP
In many places, as in Mexico (above), coronavirus has led to more overall deaths. But in a select few countries, the opposite is happening. Picture: Fernando Llano/AP

 

However, excess mortality can also reveal something else - less deaths than expected. A dearth of deaths, if you will.

UK newspaper the Financial Times has pulled together data on deaths from across the world and has found some intriguing anomalies.

Denmark has seen only a modest excess deaths; of 100 people since the beginning of 2020, a 5 per cent increase on the average. But it's also recorded 500 coronavirus fatalities. That means 400 people who didn't die from coronavirus are alive now who, in any normal year, would have perished.

In fact, compared to early 2018, totals deaths are actually down by around 300.

How is this so? Dorthe Larsen from Statistics Denmark, dropped a clue to local newspaper BT last month.

 

"There has not been any excess mortality in Denmark, such as has been seen, for example, in Sweden," she said.

"The total number of deaths over this period has lain at around 4500 over the past five years, depending to an extent on whether there has been a flu epidemic or not."

Flu - or the lack of it - could indeed be one reason, particularly in countries that are coming out of winter.

Increased hand cleanliness and social distancing not only protects people against coronavirus, but the flu as well.

Some people who, in any normal year, might have succumbed to flu didn't in 2020 because of all the hand sanitiser we're using.

A reduction in flu cases has been seen in Australia too. Admittedly we're not yet in flu season, but the virus bounces around throughout the year regardless.

Our FluTracking surveillance system which asks 70,000 people a week to list any flu-like symptoms has found big drops from February onwards.

Towards the end of April just 0.2 per cent of Australians had flu symptoms compared to 1.4 per cent last year.

"We're not importing any flu and anything that stops close contact with others is going to make it harder for the influenza virus to transmit," Professor Robert Booy at the University Sydney Medial School told the New Scientis t.

Even if Australia eases its coronavirus measures, new habits like handwashing and staying home at the merest sniff of a fever may see less people dying of the flu this year.

 

FEWER CAR ACCIDENTS

A number of countries have gone even further and seen overall deaths fall below usual levels, even while some of their citizens have died from COVID-19. .

These nations include Norway and Israel, according to the FT research. Both countries have recorded around 200 COVID-19 deaths but no excess deaths at all, in fact they may have even seen reduced mortality.

Then there's India where, it had been feared, scores would be felled by coronavirus.

So far, 47,000 people have become infected and 1500 have died, so India certainly hasn't been bypassed by the virus and deaths could yet increase.

But in Mumbai, deaths fell by 21 per cent in March. In Ahmedabad, fatalities dived by two-thirds.

Since late March, anecdotally fewer people have been cremated on India's holy Ganges river.

This is at least partly due to lockdowns that have led to a plunge in car crashes as well as fatal accidents on India's huge railway network where unintentional deaths are all too common.

"Road accident cases, and even patients with alcohol or drug abuse, stroke and heart attacks, have been coming in fewer numbers," Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma, health minister of the state of Assam, told Reuters.

Fewer bodies are being cremated on India’s holy river Ganges. since coronavirus reached the nation. Picture: Subhendu Sarkar/LightRocket via Getty Images.
Fewer bodies are being cremated on India’s holy river Ganges. since coronavirus reached the nation. Picture: Subhendu Sarkar/LightRocket via Getty Images.

SAFER IN SOUTH AFRICA

One of the most eye-opening reasons for a drop in deaths is in South Africa.

Natural causes of death have remained relatively unchanged in the nation of 58 million. But non-natural causes of death have dropped sharply.

In late March, South Africa enacted a lockdown so strict it would have made even New Zealand wince. For a time, the purchasing of alcohol and tobacco were barred.

Traffic accidents dropped sharply but so did another cause of death - murders.

 

By sheer number of murders, South Africa is in the world's top five deadliest countries. Around 58 people per day are murdered in South Africa; that compares to barely one per day in Australia.

Murders had risen to their highest level in over a decade last year. However, in early April, the government announced murders had dropped by two-thirds .

The 148 extra deaths caused by COVID-19 in South Africa has been more than compensated for by a fall in homicides.

Reuters reported that rival gangs in Cape Town's Cape Flats shantytowns had halted an ongoing turf war during the lockdown and had turned to delivering food to struggling households instead.

As lockdowns are eased, and people mingle more, it will be telling if deaths remain at lower levels.

Overall, COVID-19 has tragically killed many thousands who would otherwise still be with us.

But there's also some people going about their lives right now who wouldn't be alive today were it not for an unexpected side effect of the world's response to coronavirus.

And they don't even know how lucky they are. One of them could even be you.

Originally published as Place where COVID means more people live



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