Health workers attend to a Covid-19 patient at a hospital outside Melomed Tokai in Cape Town. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER
Health workers attend to a Covid-19 patient at a hospital outside Melomed Tokai in Cape Town. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER

As the government grapples to contain a resurgence in coronavirus cases and defends its vaccination plans, the latest mortality report from the Medical Research Council (MRC) shows the number of excess deaths in the second week of January had soared to more than double last winter’s peak.

SA has recorded Africa’s worst Covid-19 caseload and death toll, but has lagged many other emerging economies in starting its vaccination drive. On Monday, President Cyril Ramaphosa used his weekly newsletter to defend the government’s progress, assuring the country that enough vaccines had been procured to contain the spread of the virus. The first shots are expected to land in SA by the end of the month, with health-care workers slated to be first in line for vaccination.

The MRC routinely publishes a weekly mortality report, based on death records from the department of home affairs. Each report includes the forecast range of natural deaths per week, with an upper and lower bound, calculated from historical data. Excess deaths are those above the upper bound. Natural deaths are those caused by disease or age, while non-natural deaths are those due to accidents and violence.

Its latest report shows the weekly number of excess natural deaths rose to an all-time high of 16,093 in the week ending January 16, compared with the 6,673 recorded during the week of July 19 to 27 in the peak of the first wave. The January figure is triple the number of natural deaths usually seen at this time of year, with significant provincial variations. Limpopo, for example, recorded 4.3 times more natural deaths in the week to January 16 than usual, at 2,661.

SA has seen 112,280 excess natural deaths since May 3 2020, the point at which the MRC considers the start of excess deaths due to Covid-19. A quarter (29,102) of these excess deaths have been recorded in Eastern Cape, which saw hospitals overwhelmed in both its first and second coronavirus surges.

The national figure is almost triple the official Covid-19 death tally, which as of Sunday stood at 40,874, as it reflects both deaths directly caused by the virus and those caused by people’s inability to get timely health-care services as a result of the pandemic.

The report shows a sustained decline in the weekly number of excess natural deaths recorded in the Western Cape since the beginning of the year, adding weight to Premier Alan Winde’s call last week for a review of the current level three lockdown restrictions. Excess weekly natural deaths have dropped from a peak of 1,480 in the week ending December 27 to 1,306 in the week ending January 16.

The MRC said it had made some methodological changes, which include using five years of death data (2015 to 2019) instead of three (2017 to 2019) for its forecasting, and a change to its reporting week to align with other agencies such as the National Institute of Communicable Diseases.

Instead of reporting from January 1, it is now reporting from Sunday to Saturday. It still reports deaths for people over the age of 1, as infant deaths are significantly underreported, and adjusts the data to take account of the fact that the department of home affairs only records the deaths of people who have a SA identity number.

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