South Africa continues to have one of the lowest case-fatality rates in the world, experiencing far fewer Covid-19 deaths than many countries with similar or even lower numbers of infections, says president Cyril Ramaphosa.
In a national address on Thursday (23 July), the president said that since the outbreak of the disease in South Africa, more than 6,000 people have succumbed to the virus.
However, questions have been raised as to whether these statistics are correct and are not being unreported as suggested by new data published by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC).
The data published on Wednesday (22 July) by the SAMRC’s Burden of Disease Research Unit, includes information on both natural (age, disease, infection) and unnatural deaths registered on the national population register.
In the past weeks, the numbers have shown a steady increase – by the second week of July, there were 59% more deaths from natural causes than would have been expected based on historical data.
It also means that reported deaths have shown a pattern that is completely different from those indicated by historical trends.
Between 6 May and 14 July, excess deaths from natural causes were 17,090 for persons one year and older. For people between the ages of one and 59, the excess number of deaths is 5,889 and 11,175 for people 60 and older.
A possible explanation
Presenting his department’s adjusted budget in a virtual parliament on Thursday (23 July), health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize said that the SAMRC’s research includes laboratory investigations, clinical research, and public health studies.
The SAMRC also publishes the report on weekly deaths in South Africa, he said.
“In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, the SAMRC has conducted a study on excess deaths during this period. Their findings reveal that there may be additional deaths which are unaccounted for based on the modelling which they have done.
“Various possible explanations are given for this phenomenon such as people dying from Covid-19 before they get to the health care facility, or people dying from Covid-19 but the death not being reported as such, and/or people dying from non-Covid-19 conditions because the health services have been re-orientated to Covid-19.”
Mkhize said it has also been acknowledged that there is ‘uncertainty about the exact number of excess deaths in these circumstances’.
In comparison to other countries, as at 18 July, South Africa recorded a 1.4% Covid-19 death rate which is comparable to countries like India at 2.5% and Russia at 1.5%.
However, this is significantly lower than countries like the UK at 15.4%, Spain at 10.9% and the US at 3.88%, the minister said.
“We will continue to analyse this trend,” he said.
“We have urged all provinces to report deaths as guided by the WHO protocols so that they can be recorded and reported as soon as the information becomes available, to avoid the backlog as we have seen in the Eastern Cape.
“This may create a confusing and concerning perception that there is under-reporting of Covid-19 deaths. We will continue to monitor all provinces to ensure that the reporting of Covid-19 related deaths is timeously done.”