Australia recorded fewer than expected deaths from medical conditions in 2020, despite being amid a global pandemic.
So what’s behind the numbers.
What kind of death are we talking about?
The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) releases provisional death figures in December for a death certified by a doctor.
According to the ABS, “excess mortality” is the difference between the number of deaths in a period of time, and the number of deaths expected in the same period.
The December ABS report showed 116,345 deaths were recorded by doctors between January 1 and October 27, 2020, compared to a 2015-19 average of 117,484.
Doctor-registered deaths include deaths related to respiratory disease, dementia and chronic conditions such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
|January 1 – October 27, 2020||Average over the past five years for the same period|
|All deaths are certified by a doctor, including COVID-19||116,345||117,484|
|Ischemic heart disease||11,152||12,661|
|Respiratory disease, excluding COVID-19||9,977||12,161|
|Dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease||12,007||11.305|
Source: ABS transient mortality statistics
“In 2020 when the initial wave of the pandemic hit, we had an increase in the number of deaths and the increase only lasted for about a month,” said ABS director of health and mortality statistics James Eynstone-Hinkins.
“After that, what we actually saw was a significantly lower number of deaths during the winter months through October, which is the most recent data we have now.
“What we can see is that the causes of death are lowest compared to previous years, mostly in the respiratory disease group, so it can include chronic lower respiratory diseases, such as influenza and pneumonia.
The statistics do not include deaths referred to coroners, such as accidents, assaults and suicides, which according to Eynstone-Hinks typically account for about 10-15 percent of deaths in Australia.
What happened to influenza?
Federal Department of Health figures show that last year’s laboratory-confirmed influenza cases to the end of November saw 37 deaths, a 50 percent drop from the five-year average.
There were 21,266 laboratory confirmed influenza notifications to National Notifiable Disease Control System in the year to the end of the 2020 influenza season, which is almost eight times less than the five-year average of 163,015.
Deakin University’s chairperson for epidemiology Catherine Bennett said Australia was heading for an early influenza season before COVID-19 arrived, but the restrictions imposed in response to the pandemic were slowing the transmission of not only the coronavirus, but other infectious diseases as well.
“Because we worked earlier and harder with our restrictions, we weren’t just preventing a lot of deaths from COVID – we were seeing 900 or more [COVID-related] death – but at the same time we prevent much more, “said Professor Bennett.
“In the process, by bringing in the initial flu vaccine and only the effects of restriction, isolation, extra hygiene that are practiced by people, we are also reducing deaths from flu and other infectious diseases, particularly respiratory, real-life deaths.”
Without boundaries and physical distance, Professor Bennett said Australia would record the same number of deaths from influenza as in previous years, as well as “more” deaths from COVID-19 than 900.
“The net effect for Australia is much more positive than overseas where they are less able to prevent COVID-19 deaths.”
When was the turning point?
In May, the number of excess deaths in Australia started to decline.
“Australian figures actually look pretty close to the average over the last five years, but actually this is the period after May, before the second wave. [in Victoria] and after a second wave where we saw the net effect which was a decrease in reported deaths, “said Professor Bennett.
He said it shows the positive health impacts of social distancing and hand hygiene.
“I definitely hope one of the legacies that we see [from the COVID pandemic] is that people are more aware of distance, keeping your distance from other people, hand hygiene, and even masks if you are in a crowded place.
“The workplace understands their importance not to make people sick; whatever it is, you don’t want your other staff to get sick.”
Mental health warnings
Experts have expressed concern about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the mental health of Australians and have warned of a potential spike in the number of deaths from suicide.
Suicidal deaths are not included in the ABS mortality statistics because they are referred to the coroner and it takes longer to record the cause of death.
From the available data, It appears that the suicide rate did not increase during the pandemic, but researchers and mental health workers have warned that the pandemic’s effect on suicide rates could be delayed.
The Black Dog Institute said there had been an increase in people accessing mental health and crisis pathways, and waiting times for mental health services had also increased.
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