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Excess mortality: Deaths now back to pre-Covid levels

Photo by Madeleine Maguire on Unsplash

The number of deaths now being recorded in Belgium – around 300 a day – is no higher than it was before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

According to Statbel, the government’s official statistics office, daily deaths in the years 2015 to 2019 were between 295 and 303. In 2019 the number was 298, then in 2020 the daily average leapt up to 347.

The phenomenon is known as excess mortality: when due to one cause or another, the number of deaths is suddenly higher than would normally be expected. The cause might be a serious flu epidemic or a heatwave.

While the daily average seems moderate, the annual total is much more dramatic. In all of 2020, 18,105 more people died than in 2019, an increase of 16.64%.

Excess mortality peaked in April 2020 with 15,449 deaths, compared to a normal average (2015-2019) of 8,990 – an increase not far off 100%.

Later, the excess mortality dropped somewhat, with a negative excess in June and July. I other words, fewer people died in those months, all causes together, that had been the case in previous non-Covid years.

The statistics also show that the peak deaths as a result of Covid correspond precisely with the three waves of the pandemic Belgium has experienced: April 2020 as mentioned, a smaller peak in August 2020, and a third peak, between the two, in November 2020.

In 2020, Covid-19 was still only the third most common cause of death in the country. The numbers only include patients who died as a direct result of the virus. It is simply not true that all deaths of infected people are attributed to the virus, even if the proximate cause was cancer or an accident.

The most common causes of death in 2020, as in most years, were heart and vascular disease, and all types of cancer.

The lack of excess mortality can be explained by several factors:

• A high rate of vaccination in general: 83.3% for the adult population as a whole, and 91% for those aged over 65;
• There has been no kind of a heatwave this year so far, which keeps that factor out of the reckoning, and;
• To put it bluntly, the most vulnerable, the elderly and the chronically sick, were victims in the early days of the pandemic before vaccines were available or widely applied. Many of those people would likely have lived on otherwise, and not contributed to excess mortality figures.

At present, Statbel shows, 9% of all deaths, 4,957 people aged over 65, were caused by Covid this year. In 2020, by contrast, that figure was 18,486 deaths or 16.8%.

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