South Africa’s Excess Deaths Soar As New Virus Variant Spreads

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South Africa’s death toll from Covid-19 is likely to be far higher than the official number of 40,874 reported so far, with the country struggling to contain a new, more transmittable variant of the virus that’s caused alarm globally.

There were 112,280 more deaths from natural causes than would have been expected between May 6 and Jan. 16, the South African Medical Research Council said in its latest excess death report published on Sunday. Weekly excess deaths, a measure of mortality exceeding historical averages, reached a record 16,093 by Jan. 10, the highest since the epidemic struck in March.

“We’re rather surprised by the high numbers,” Debbie Bradshaw, the council’s chief specialist scientist and a co-author of the report, said by phone Monday. “The growth in excess deaths from natural causes in the provinces is very confluent with the unfolding of the second wave, so we think that a high proportion must be Covid-related deaths. We can’t give an exact figure but our guess is that’s it’s probably between 70% and 80%.”

Tracking excess mortality is widely seen as a way to gauge the full extent of fatalities from the coronavirus. It includes those suspected of having the disease who died without being tested and people who died of other causes after being unable to secure treatment because hospitals were swamped.

South Africa had more than 1.4 million confirmed infections as of Sunday and many hospitals are filled to capacity. The two provinces first to be hit by the resurgence -- the Western Cape and Eastern Cape -- are now showing a slight decline in excess deaths, which probably means that they’ve passed the peak of infections, according to Bradshaw.

The government imposed a nationwide ban on alcohol sales last month and shut all land borders to try and contain the resurgence.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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