Thursday June 10, 2021
Country comparison of the dead
How well did Germany get through the crisis?
From Kai Stoppel
Millions of people worldwide die in connection with Covid-19. But which countries are hardest hit? Researchers now calculate excess mortality for more than 90 states. It is supposed to give the most exact view of how high the number of victims was compared to normal years.
Since the beginning of the corona pandemic, the question has always been: How well or how bad is Germany getting through the crisis? Often the numbers of infected people and deaths are compared with those from other countries. In this regard, countries such as New Zealand, South Korea or Taiwan have so far been considered prime examples of how to deal with the virus. In the public perception, however, countries like the USA, Great Britain and Italy came off worse.
But which yardstick can best be used to compare which countries are and were less affected and which were more affected? Dmitry Kobak from the University of Tübingen and Ariel Karlinsky from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have chosen excess mortality as the measure for their new study. It quantifies how many more people died in a period than would have been expected with a view to previous years. The advantage of this, according to the researchers: In contrast to official statistics, excess mortality is more objective. Because even when it comes to the question of what a corona death is, there are different criteria.
The World Health Organization (WHO) had already found in a report from May that in 2020 excess mortality worldwide was higher than the number of officially recorded corona deaths. Accordingly, 3 million more people died last year than would have been expected – around 1.7 times as many as the 1.8 million corona deaths officially reported by the end of the year. The WHO has now recorded more than 3.7 million corona deaths.
100 times more corona deaths than known
However, this does not have to mean that more people have died of Covid-19 in all countries than officially known. The authors of the study, which has not yet undergone a peer review, emphasize that some countries have recorded corona deaths very precisely. For others, however, these are considerably understated: for example in Nicaragua, Russia and Uzbekistan. In Tajikistan, the researchers even found 100 times more corona deaths than the authorities had reported. There are also considerable differences in excess mortality among the 94 countries examined. While some paid a high price in human life, for others the excess mortality was very low – or even negative.
According to the study, countries in Latin America were particularly hard hit: in Ecuador, Bolivia and Mexico, over 50 percent more people died during the pandemic than in normal years. In Peru there were more than twice as many. However, the researchers emphasize that no statistical data on deaths were available to them from many countries around the world – excess mortality remains unknown for almost all countries on the African continent.
In contrast, the data situation was better in Europe, North and South America, Russia, Central Asia and Australia. The comparison shows that countries that were particularly in focus at the beginning and during the pandemic – such as Italy, Spain, Great Britain or the USA – were not most severely affected in an international comparison. Around 620,000 more people than usual died in the USA by mid-April 2021 – but calculated over the previous years it was “only” 21 percent more. In Italy there were 17 percent more deaths than in normal years, in Spain also 21 percent and in Great Britain 18 percent more deaths.
Germany gets off lightly
But how does Germany fare in an international comparison? According to the researchers’ calculations, excess mortality in Germany was a comparatively low 4 percent until the end of May 2021. It was significantly higher in neighbors Austria (11 percent), Switzerland and the Netherlands (12 percent each) and Belgium (14 percent). In Poland, 26 percent more people died than in normal years, in the Czech Republic the excess mortality was as high as 29 percent.
At the same time, Germany has a special feature: According to official data, there were around 87,000 recorded corona deaths in this country by the end of May – however, only 36,000 more people died in the same period than would have been expected. How can that be? The authors explain this effect by the fact that corona measures such as lockdowns, contact restrictions and keeping your distance also have an influence on other causes of death. Above all, the spread of the flu was slowed down significantly last winter, which could reduce mortality “by 3 to 6 percent”.
This assumption is also supported by data from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI): According to this, there were only around 520 laboratory-confirmed cases of flu in Germany in the 2020/21 season. The usual flu wave has thus practically failed – a novelty since the flu surveillance began in 1992. Most other countries in the northern hemisphere were also spared the wave, according to the RKI.
In some countries, the effect of the lack of flu has even led to excess mortality being negative. According to the study, this was the case in Australia and New Zealand, for example. But the researchers also determine a slightly negative excess mortality for Denmark and Iceland. This means: In these countries, fewer people died during the corona pandemic than in normal years. As positive as it sounds at first, they are unfortunately the absolute exceptions.