A new report on recorded death figures in South Africa has been released by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), showing a significant increase in the number of weekly deaths during the national COVID-19 lockdown.
The latest data shows a continued increase in weekly deaths that began during the lockdown period.
This data is based on the number of deaths recorded on the National Population Register, which is provided to the SAMRC every week.
“In the context of the emerging COVID-19 pandemic, it has become essential to track the weekly number of deaths that occur,” the SAMRC said.
The SAMRC also tracks excess deaths, which are classified as the difference between expected deaths and actual reported deaths, including those attributable to COVID-19 and natural causes that could not be treated as people could not be cared for.
According to the SAMRC, the number of excess deaths from 6 May to 14 July is now 17,090 across the country – much higher than the reported COVID-19 death numbers.
It is important to note, however, that the SAMRC scales up the number of deaths as well as its expected deaths figure.
“These have been scaled up to estimate the actual number of deaths by accounting for the people who are not on the population register and the under-registration of deaths,” the SAMRC said.
“The estimated numbers are compared with the number that would be expected based on the historical data from 2018 and 2019.”
The graph which shows the large, continued spike in weekly deaths is below.
Potential problems with death numbers
Pandemics Data and Analytics (PANDA) has pointed out a number of potential issues with the SAMRC’s reporting of excess deaths.
PANDA identified two problems with how the SAMRC calculated its excess death numbers:
- The SAMRC notes that the number of deaths “have been scaled up to estimate the actual number of deaths by accounting for the people who are not on the population register and the under-registration of deaths”.
- Insufficient information is presented as to how the expected number of deaths is derived.
The organisation also said the actual deaths before the SAMRC’s abovementioned adjustment are not available, and it is unclear whether the SAMRC normally adjusts both the actual deaths and the expected deaths to account for people not on the population register.
PANDA also noted that the SAMRC had adjusted its expected deaths figure based on the estimated number of deaths in the week prior to lockdown.
While the opaque nature of the data makes it difficult to determine the validity of the reporting, PANDA said that looking at excess deaths as reported for a single week is not useful, and that deviation from accepted methods for calculating overall excess deaths requires a more detailed explanation from the SAMRC.
SAMRC should be disclosing the data they use and the methods they have adopted for making adjustments,” PANDA said.
“Pending this explanation, the finding that there has been any excess death beyond the stated COVID-19 numbers, and that such deaths should be considered to be deaths from COVID-19, must be treated with scepticism.”