Gauteng has recorded its deadliest week on record amid the third wave of Covid-19 infections, driven by the Delta variant, with just more than 4 800 deaths from natural causes reported between 27 June and 3 July.
In comparison, 15 334 deaths from all causes were reported nationally in the same week, with just more than 14 000 of those deaths from natural causes, according to estimates prepared by researchers at the South African Medical Research Council’s Burden of Disease Research Unit (BDRU) and University of Cape Town’s Centre for Actuarial Research (CARe).
The researchers have published weekly reports on mortality in South Africa since March 2020 which included estimates on excess deaths, which are obtained by comparing the number of deaths reported to the Department of Home Affairs weekly from natural and unnatural causes to the number of deaths reported over the same weeks in preceding years.
Excess deaths are considered the most accurate way to measure the impact of an epidemic and which can account for deaths that occur outside of healthcare systems.
The graph below, taken from the latest weekly report, shows the expected number of deaths with an upper and lower prediction bound, and the actual number of reported deaths, the black line. The grey lines indicate where the reported deaths were higher than the expected number of deaths and it is here that excess deaths are calculated.
The graph shows that around 4 800 natural deaths were reported between 27 June and 3 July, which was roughly 3 200 deaths more than expected based on historical data. In contrast, a little more than 700 Covid-19 deaths were officially reported in the same time frame.
The researchers estimated 182 300 excess deaths from natural causes have occurred since 3 May 2020. These are deaths that occurred over and above the number of expected deaths based on historical trends and include the 64 000 reported Covid-19 deaths to date.
The BDRU/CARe team estimated previously that 80% of these natural deaths could be linked to Covid-19, which would result in an estimated actual death toll linked to Covid-19 of 145 000 people – more than double the official reported number.
In the latest weekly report published on Wednesday, researchers noted a continued increase in deaths reported in Gauteng and other provinces.
For the week of 27 June to 3 July:
Last week, scientists working within the National Genomics Surveillance laboratories confirmed that the Delta variant – a mutation of the original SARS-Cov-2 virus first detected in India in October 2020 which is more transmissible – was now becoming dominant in most parts of the country.
While the causes of the deaths cannot be determined with certainty until Stats SA has processed the death notification forms, the excess deaths research has consistently indicated that South Africa is underreporting the actual death toll from Covid-19.
Stats SA is only now processing thousands of death notification forms from 2018 and it could therefore be a few years before more definitive numbers of Covid-19-linked deaths are reported.
This is evidenced by the correlation between surges in Covid-19 cases and increases in natural deaths – as cases surged, deaths would increase and as cases dropped, the number of deaths would decrease.
The older population groups have continued to see higher numbers of deaths.
“For people aged one to 59 years, the number of natural deaths has tracked the predicted number since February 2021. By the end of week [27 June to 3 July], the excess natural deaths since 3 May 2020 totals just over 42 350,” the report read.
“For people 60 years and older, the number of natural deaths remains well above the upper prediction bound. The excess deaths for people aged 60 years and older by the end of the week of 27 June to 3 July is over 140 000 since 3 May.”
Of the 182 300 estimated excess natural deaths the researchers have found since 3 May, more than 100 000 occurred in 2021 alone.
Deaths from unnatural causes, meanwhile, have started dropping, in keeping with trends seen previously when stricter lockdown measures and alcohol sales bans were put in place.