Research

Tracking mortality in near to real time provides essential information about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa in 2020

D Bradshaw, R E Dorrington, R Laubscher, T A Moultrie, P Groenewald

Abstract


Background. Producing timely and accurate estimates of the impact of COVID-19 on mortality is challenging for most countries, but impossible for South Africa (SA) from cause-of-death statistics. 

Objectives. To quantify the excess deaths and likely magnitude of COVID-19 in SA in 2020 and draw conclusions on monitoring the epidemic in 2021. 

Methods. Basic details of deaths registered on the National Population Register by the Department of Home Affairs (DoHA) are provided to the South African Medical Research Council weekly. Adjustments are made to the numbers of weekly deaths to account for non-registration on the population register, as well as late registration of death with the DoHA. The weekly number of deaths is compared with the number predicted based on the Holt-Winters time-series analysis of past deaths for provinces and metropolitan areas. Excess deaths were calculated for all-causes deaths and natural deaths, using the predicted deaths as a baseline. In addition, an adjustment was made to the baseline for natural deaths to account for the drop in natural deaths due to lockdown. 

Results. We estimated that just over 550 000 deaths occurred among persons aged ≥1 year during 2020, 13% higher than the 485 000 predicted before the pandemic. A pronounced increase in weekly deaths from natural causes peaked in the middle of July across all ages except <20 years, and across all provinces with slightly different timing. During December, it became clear that SA was experiencing a second wave of COVID-19 that would exceed the death toll of the first wave. In 2020, there were 70 000 - 76 000 excess deaths from natural causes, depending on the base. Using the adjusted base, the excess death rate from natural causes was 122 per 100 000 population, with a male-to-female ratio of 0.78. Deaths from unnatural causes halved for both males and females during the stringent lockdown level 5. The numbers reverted towards the predicted number with some fluctuations as lockdown restrictions varied. Just under 5 000 unnatural deaths were averted. 

Conclusions. Tracking the weekly numbers of deaths in near to real time has provided important information about the spatiotemporal impact of the pandemic and highlights that the ~28 000 reported COVID-19 deaths during 2020 substantially understate the death toll from COVID-19. There is an urgent need to re-engineer the system of collecting and processing cause-of-death information so that it can be accessed in a timely way to inform public health actions.


Authors' affiliations

D Bradshaw, Burden of Disease Research Unit, South African Medical Research Council, Cape Town, South Africa; School of Public Health and Family Medicine, Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Cape Town, South Africa

R E Dorrington, Centre for Actuarial Research, Faculty of Commerce, University of Cape Town, South Africa

R Laubscher, Biostatistics Unit, South African Medical Research Council, Cape Town, South Africa

T A Moultrie, Centre for Actuarial Research, Faculty of Commerce, University of Cape Town, South Africa

P Groenewald, Burden of Disease Research Unit, South African Medical Research Council, Cape Town, South Africa

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Keywords

COVID-19; Excess deaths; Mortality; South Africa

Cite this article

South African Medical Journal 2021;111(8):732-740. DOI:10.7196/SAMJ.2021.v111i8.15809

Article History

Date submitted: 2021-05-21
Date published: 2021-05-21

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