Fresh Takes

To what extent did COVID-19 increase the mortality rate?

It’s a fact of life that people die. Those who die are more likely to be old, and those who die young are more likely to suffer from chronic diseases. This was true before the COVID-19 pandemic, and it will still be true after COVID-19. And it was also true during the worst days of the pandemic.

Of course, every death is a tragedy for the families who suffer the loss of a loved one. No statistics could ever convey the intimate drama every household goes through when it happens. However, statistics can help us understand the real impact of a phenomenon such as COVID-19 on society’s mortality rate.

There is uncertainty surrounding how many people have died from COVID-19 and how many have simply died with it. There is also uncertainty regarding whether stricter lockdowns have really prevented more deaths, or if they have instead had adverse effects on people’s health, both physical and psychological, including whether they induced deaths by suicide or by delayed treatments such as surgeries and chemotherapy. It remains to be seen if we will be able one day to establish with transparency the many different primary causes of death during the pandemic, but data about the absolute number of deceased, and more importantly of excess deaths,[1] are already available.

Looking at the weekly statistics for Quebec, the 18th week of 2020 set a new record with 2,090 deaths. The former record was the last week of 2014 with 1,746 deaths. This means that week 18 this year had almost 20% more deaths than the worst week of the past ten years. If we compare the only six weeks in 2020 which had a higher death toll than the last week of 2014 and the worst six weeks of the winter of 2014-2015, there are 1,942 excess deaths, or just above 20%. Hence, there is no doubt that COVID-19 was an exceptional event that triggered a situation resulting in a higher than normal death toll.

Still, when we look at yearly figures over the past decade, we see that the number of deaths increased on average 2% year-on-year,[2] with significant fluctuations between good years and bad ones (ranging from -4% to +7%). The 1,942 excess deaths of the worst six weeks of 2020 so far represent 2.87% of yearly deaths in 2019, well below the normal fluctuation for a bad year.[3]

This should lead us to question why the media have kept communicating hysterically about the deadly impact of the virus on a daily basis. Encouraging people to exercise caution is appropriate, and has surely helped save lives. But the daily repetition, for months on end, of data about “new cases,” “cumulative active cases,” and “cumulative deaths” have maintained a sense of fear and urgency completely out of proportion with the reality and invited strict lockdown measures that, when all is said and done, may well have been worse than lighter measures.

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1. Excess mortality is measured here as the difference between the six-week period with the highest weekly mortality during these ten years (winter 2014-2015), and the six-week period with the highest observed mortality in 2020 (weeks 15 through 20) at the time of writing.​
2. Despite significant fluctuation from year to year, the number of annual deaths has increased by an average of 2% for the past 10 years, following the general growth rate of the population and with a slowly but steadily declining mortality rate.
3. This may well be a prudent figure, since many people who died from COVID-19 in the first half of 2020 will not die from, let’s say, influenza in the last quarter of 2020 as they otherwise might have.

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