In Practice

The impact of the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic on mortality in South Africa in 2020

R E Dorrington, R Laubscher, N Nannan, D Bradshaw


Background. The impacts on mortality of both the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic and the interventions to manage it differ between countries. The Rapid Mortality Surveillance System set up by the South African Medical Research Council based on data from the National Population Register (NPR) provides a means of tracking this impact on mortality in South Africa.

Objectives. To report on the change in key metrics of mortality (numbers of deaths, life expectancy at birth, life expectancy at age 60, and infant, under-5, older child and adolescent, young adult,  and adult mortality) over the period 2015 - 2020. The key features of the impact are contrasted with those measured in other countries.

Methods. The numbers of registered deaths by age and sex recorded on the NPR were increased to account for both registered deaths that are not captured by the NPR and an estimate of deaths not reported. The estimated numbers of deaths together with estimates of the numbers in the population in the middle of each of the years were used to produce life tables and calculate various indicators.

Results. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of deaths increased by nearly 53 000 (65% female), and life expectancy at birth fell by 1 year for females and by only 2.5 months for males. Life expectancy at age 60 decreased by 1.6 years for females and 1.2 years for males. Infant mortality, under-5 mortality and mortality of children aged 5 - 14 decreased by 22%, 20% and 10%, respectively, while that for older children and adolescents decreased by 11% for males and 5% for females. Premature adult mortality, the probability of a 15-year-old dying before age 60, increased by 2% for males and 9% for females.

Conclusions. COVID-19 and the interventions to manage it had differential impacts on mortality by age and sex. The impact of the epidemic on life expectancy in 2020 differs from that in most other, mainly developed, countries, both in the limited decline and also in the greater impact on females. These empirical estimates of life expectancy and mortality rates are not reflected by estimates from agencies, either because agency estimates have yet to be updated for the impact of the epidemic or because they have not allowed for the impact correctly. Trends in weekly excess deaths suggest that the drop in life expectancy in 2021 will be greater than that in 2020.

Authors' affiliations

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

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

N Nannan, Burden of Disease Research Unit, South African Medical Research Council, Cape Town, South Africa

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

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South Africa; Life expectancy; Mortality; COVID-19

Cite this article

South African Medical Journal 2022;112(1):. DOI:10.7196/SAMJ.2021.v112.i1.16

Article History

Date submitted: 2021-11-24
Date published: 2021-11-24

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